At first glance, the barren stretch of desert between Carlsbad and Hobbs in southeastern New Mexico seems unfit for any kind of industry. But this rugged, nondescript patch of land is poised to be the focus of the next national conversation about how to dispose of the country’s most dangerous nuclear waste.

The state took a crucial step this month toward accepting such waste, which other Western states have shunned, when Gov. Susana Martinez quietly signaled to the Obama administration that New Mexico would welcome it.

In an April 10 letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, which was obtained by The New Mexican, Martinez urged the administration to look to southeastern New Mexico to store the spent, highly radioactive fuel rods left over from electricity production at nuclear power plants. The desolate 1,000-acre parcel is not far from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository, which accepts only lower-level radioactive waste.

“Time and time again, the citizens of southeastern New Mexico have impressed me with their hard work ethic and willingness to tackle national problems that many others consider to be unsolvable,” Martinez wrote. “In one of the most remote areas of the state, they have had the ingenuity and fortitude to carve out a niche in the nuclear industry to broaden their economic base. They understand the benefits not only to their local economy, but also to our country.”

The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of city and county governments, has advocated for such a site for years. Carlsbad alone has spent more than a quarter-million dollars lobbying for the project.

In the badlands of southeastern New Mexico, civic leaders see waste as hope. And while the area’s aspirations to bring a storage site for spent fuel are only now ready to step into a national spotlight, backers of the plan have waged a largely silent, high-dollar campaign to influence decision-makers at the state and federal levels to support the idea.

“You’ve got to recognize, we’re not a Santa Fe, and we’re not an Albuquerque that has a self-sustaining economy. We’re out here in the hinterlands, and we need to find our own niches,” John Heaton, a former New Mexico lawmaker and current chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, said. “The reality is we have to figure out how to build our own economy down here, how to grow our own jobs, and so that’s the path we’ve taken. We are fiercely independent down here.”

The Obama administration recently announced it would give greater weight to regional acceptance when selecting high-level waste disposal sites. While Utah and Nevada have expressed distaste for such a site, Martinez’s letter and the approval of civic leaders in Eddy and Lea counties are critical steps in checking that box.

But one critic of the plan says bringing highly radioactive waste to New Mexico from nuclear power plants concentrated on the East Coast is a matter of statewide concern that shouldn’t be decided by a fraction of the state’s residents.

“[Martinez] is not the governor of southeastern New Mexico. She’s the governor of the whole state of New Mexico, but she wants to be a booster for these southeastern New Mexico folks,” said Don Hancock, a waste expert with the Albuquerque-based watchdog Southwest Information and Research Center. “She certainly hasn’t asked the people of the state what they think about it.”

A spokesman for Martinez, in a written statement, called the letter to Moniz a preliminary endorsement to consider an interim storage site in New Mexico and said the governor is committed to a process that will “ensure all voices are heard before any interim storage site is selected.”

Hancock rattled off a long list of reasons he thinks the plan is a bad idea. Most nuclear power plants are thousands of miles away, meaning the nation’s most volatile waste would need to travel across the country to come here, posing threats along the way. Comparable plans have been batted down not only in other states, but in New Mexico. Hancock said it’s disingenuous to characterize the proposed storage site in New Mexico as an interim way station for spent fuel on its way to a permanent resting place. With the demise of plans to construct a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the U.S. is without a final destination for spent fuel, so Hancock worries that any interim storage options would in fact become the final stop.

“This is the hottest, most radioactive material in the United States,” Hancock said. “Permanent disposal doesn’t exist. So the so-called plan for ‘interim’ storage is a charade. It’s not truthful. Nobody can seriously believe that. There is no ability to send it someplace else, because there is no someplace else.”

He favors leaving spent fuel at the nuclear power plants that generated them.

Heaton said the site a mile north of U.S. 62/180 halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs, which is owned by those cities and the counties of Eddy and Lea, is ideal for an interim spent-fuel repository.

“The site is very dry, 35 miles from population, seismically stable, close to rail; water and electricity are on the site; there is no commercial fly-over traffic; which makes it an excellent site,” Heaton said. He also touted the area workforce’s familiarity with nuclear-waste handling.

In her letter to Moniz, Martinez made all the same points.

“She basically understood the need for the letter and what it meant in terms of being able to go forward or not go forward,” Heaton said. “We’re grateful as heck for it.”

The alliance has studied closely the dry-cask form of packaging that encases spent fuel during transportation and storage, and Heaton said promoters of the project in southeastern New Mexico are confident that it’s safe.

The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s chief competition to become the dumpsite sits a short, dusty drive through the desert, just across the state line in Andrews, Texas, where Waste Control Specialists is mounting a campaign of its own to develop a spent-fuel storage site. And AREVA, the federal contractor owned by the French government that’s part of the consortium that operates WIPP, joined forces in February with Waste Control Specialists in its bid to land the mission.

For about two years, until the end of 2013, AREVA was the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s partner in pursuing a dump in southeastern New Mexico. An AREVA spokesman said the split was by mutual agreement.

“They were doing what they could do to help, we were doing what we could to help, and when two helps don’t work, you have to move on,” Heaton said.

While it was affiliated with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, AREVA’s political action committee made significant donations to Martinez and key members of Congress involved in the decision-making process for nuclear waste storage, as well as all but one member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, according to Federal Election Commission and New Mexico Secretary of State campaign finance records.

During the 2014 election cycle, AREVA PAC gave Martinez’s re-election campaign $1,000 — more than one-fourth of all the money it gave to state-level candidates nationwide. In federal campaigns during the 2014 election cycle, AREVA PAC donated $3,000 to U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M; $1,000 to U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M.; $1,500 to U.S Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.; and $3,000 to U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M, who wasn’t even up for re-election last year. Among New Mexico’s representatives in Congress, only U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, did not receive money from AREVA PAC.

Carlsbad has been doing its own lobbying of Congress to promote southeastern New Mexico as a waste dumpsite. Since 2012, the city of Carlsbad has spent about $260,000 on lobbyists to try to persuade members of Congress to consider the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance’s parcel as a waste storage site, according to analysis of lobbyist records by the Center for Responsive Politics.

AREVA’s campaign donations and Carlsbad’s lobbying push ramped up after the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance provided formal notice in early 2013 to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its plans to seek a license to operate a spent-fuel storage facility.

“We thought at that time there was going to be congressional action taken,” Heaton said. “There was a lot of indication that there would be. There was a lot of enthusiasm about that.”

While the campaign to woo waste to southeastern New Mexico continues, the alliance’s plans to file a formal application for a storage site license by 2015 did not materialize. Just this year, Waste Control Specialists and AREVA made public their plans to seek a license.

Proceeding without a prominent federal contractor could doom any hope of opening a spent-fuel facility, Heaton said. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process will take three years and cost $60 million, he estimated.

This week, the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance plans a joint new conference with the large federal contractor Holtec International — a manufacturer of the same dry-cask technology that Heaton praised as safe — to announce a new partnership that a news release billed as “nationally significant.” Neither Heaton nor a Holtec spokeswoman reached by phone on Friday would confirm whether Holtec will be joining the push for a waste site on the alliance’s property.

Both AREVA and Holtec have come under fire in government reports for past problems involving nuclear projects.

An audit last year by the Department of Energy’s inspector general criticized the planning, delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns of a project spearheaded by AREVA to develop a site in South Carolina for disposal of surplus weapons-grade plutonium. In a written statement, a spokesman for AREVA said the spent-fuel storage mission is not analogous to the first-of-its-kind plutonium disposal facility job.

In 2010, the federally owned utility Tennessee Valley Authority temporarily stripped Holtec of its status as an approved government contractor over a bribery scandal that led to felony charges and criminal conviction of a nuclear plant manager who authorized cask purchases from Holtec. A Holtec spokeswoman declined to discuss the situation.

Carlsbad’s waste industry has an image problem of its own to overcome if it wants to gain statewide support for a new endeavor. WIPP, the nuclear repository that was designed never to leak — but did — still isn’t accepting waste after a radiation leak there last year caused by a volatile batch of waste packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Heaton said WIPP’s travails, and the course of the spent-fuel storage facility southeastern New Mexico hopes to add are its cross to bear, even if its advocates need to convince the rest of the state to accept the idea during a licensing process that could take years.

“You have to think about who has the risk. You don’t have any risk from what’s going on at WIPP in Santa Fe. There is no event or risk that’s going to affect Albuquerque,” Heaton said. “The folks that are going to be affected are down here, and we should be the ones making the decision. Period. End of story.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.