Executives from a Florida-based company with plans to store waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants in Southern New Mexico told state lawmakers Monday the storage and transport of the radioactive material will be safe.
But several members of the Legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee remain unconvinced.
Lawmakers peppered officials from Holtec International with questions on whether they and local first responders had a plan to clean up a potential spill and expressed concern about such high-level waste traveling through communities.
Safety oversight would fall almost entirely on the federal government, according to Holtec Project Manager Ed Mayer and Interim Storage Partners Chief Financial Officer Elicia Sanchez.
Although the company, founded in New Jersey but now with headquarters in Jupiter, Fla., needs air quality, groundwater discharge and other environmental permits from the New Mexico Environment Department, it’s largely up to the federal government whether the project receives approval to move forward, said state Rep. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat on the committee.
“It seems to me that they hold most of the cards if, in fact, the federal government gives them this license, which is one of the really scary realizations you come to on this subject,” Steinborn said. “If they want to jam you by putting a facility in your state, they can do it. The state has no requirement of consent.”
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Holtec want to temporarily store the nation’s commercial radioactive waste on property halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs until the federal government can create a more permanent facility for disposal.
The Obama administration defunded a longtime project to create a permanent storage facility for high-level nuclear waste beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which faced opposition from that state, but the Trump administration has expressed interest in reviving the effort.
Pending federal approval, Holtec would store some 10,000 200-ton canisters underground on a 1,000-acre desert facility “35 miles from the nearest human habitat,” according to the company’s website. The drums of waste would come to New Mexico by train.
Mayer and Sanchez tried to reassure worried legislators that the thick steel drums in which the company plans to store the nuclear waste are safe and secure, that first responders would be prepared and on standby if anything went wrong and that railways would be upgraded to handle the transport.
“The rails themselves will be upgraded, so the rails will be safe,” Mayer said, responding to questions from state Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon, a Democrat from Milan who said he is extremely worried about radioactive waste traveling by train through his district.
“The canisters are remarkably safe; I won’t get into that,” Mayer continued. “It has an armed and trained security force on the train. The engineers are redundant. The first responders are prepared.”
“If we take this much precaution with low-level nuclear waste, which goes to [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant], how can we just ship this without any precaution at all? I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Alcon said, referring to WIPP, the nuclear waste depository near Carlsbad.
Nevada lawmakers have remained firmly against storing the country’s nuclear power plant waste in their desert, and so has New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who came out against Holtec’s plans in June.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland also have expressed strong concerns about the proposal.
The governor, in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki, called the facility “economic malpractice” in counties that generate an annual $5 billion from the oil and gas industry.
Although the company says it will not impact cattle or oil and gas operations, the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association have written letters in opposition to the proposal.
Former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez had endorsed the plan, which has strong support from local government officials in Eddy and Lea counties. It also earned the praise of two Republican lawmakers Monday on the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee.
State Sen. Gregg Fulfer of Jal said nuclear waste storage could help diversify New Mexico’s economy before oil and gas profits dry up.
State Sen. Ron Griggs of Alamogordo praised the company for not asking for financial incentives from the state at a time when many other companies do.
Holtec has said the project will result in $15 million to $25 million in revenue sharing with a regional public alliance that supports the plan. That public entity would share a certain amount of money with the state.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Sanchez was CFO of Holtec International, instead of Interim Storage Partners.