Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will not support a plan to bring all the nation’s high-level radioactive commercial waste to New Mexico, a reversal from the previous administration’s position and a potential blow to nuclear industry advocates.

In a letter sent Friday to U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kristine Svinicki, chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Lujan Grisham said the proposal poses “unacceptable risks to New Mexicans” — particularly to the ranching and oil and gas industries.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of evaluating a license to develop a temporary radioactive waste storage site in Southern New Mexico on about 1,000 acres halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The plan calls for construction of a 23-foot-deep underground chamber for storage of containers of spent fuel rods discarded from nuclear power plants.

The project is a partnership between Holtec International, which exports and specializes in nuclear energy equipment, and the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance — a consortium of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, as well as Eddy County and Lea County — which bought the land for the project.

Joy Russell, senior vice president of business development and communications for Holtec, did not respond to requests for comment on Lujan Grisham’s letter. Nor did John Heaton, chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance board.

In earlier interviews and presentations, Heaton has said the location for the waste storage site is ideal: dry, remote and geologically stable. And its close proximity to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground facility for disposal of certain types of nuclear weapons waste, would be a boon: The area already has a nuclear science framework and strong support for the industry, Heaton has said.

Former Gov. Susana Martinez endorsed the proposal.

A similar project has been proposed in West Texas, just across the New Mexico border, and proponents of the Holtec plan say it would be better to have the risk and reward in this state. If the site moves forward in Texas, they say, New Mexico would share the same risk without any profit.

Lujan Grisham said the agriculture and oil and gas industries bring $5 billion to the state annually, much of which is generated in Eddy and Lea counties.

“Establishing an interim storage facility in this region would be economic malpractice,” she said in the letter.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association also have written letters of opposition to the proposal.

There are also questions about just how temporary the site would be.

While Holtec has applied for a 40-year permit, the permit has potential for renewal, and the nation currently has no other site for disposal of high-level commercial nuclear waste. Plans to create such a site in Nevada at Yucca Mountain were defunded by President Barack Obama’s administration. President Donald Trump has expressed interest in reviving the project and has sought some funding for it, but for now it remains stalled.

Lujan Grisham cited the risk of the state keeping the waste indefinitely and the potential for casks to leak or need to be repacked. She also raised concerns about transportation of the waste, saying the burden of emergency response, infrastructure and accidents would fall on New Mexico.

In May, a federal board that oversees commercial nuclear materials and licenses for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected a request for an evidentiary hearing on the proposal. Environmental groups said it could violate federal law and threaten public health and safety in the event of a radioactive accident.

Holtec said at the time that the project was on track to be licensed by 2020.


Rebecca Moss has covered the environment and Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Santa Fe New Mexican since j2015. In 2018, she was selected to participate in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.