The term “nuclear waste” may not have much of a ring to it, but if you are in the business, you know that it is a growth industry and you know that New Mexico is where it’s at.
The Land of Enchantment already has two large operating projects (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Newport News Nuclear BWXT Los Alamos, or N3B Legacy) and a third (Holtec International) that has applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington.
All three projects are quite different in their missions. WIPP, near Carlsbad, has a mission to accept low-level transuranic waste from Department of Energy sites across the country. The N3B Legacy waste cleanup project in Los Alamos has a mission to clean up legacy waste generated by the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War nuclear arms race. The Holtec project, also near Carlsbad, has a mission to accept high-level nuclear waste, i.e. spent fuel rods, from the commercial nuclear power industry.
The oversight, or safety supervision, of these three projects is split between federal and state agencies. WIPP has federal oversight only through the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board; the N3B Legacy waste cleanup project has New Mexico Environment Department oversight. Holtec has oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington.
Recently, in the New Mexico legislative session, an attempt to create more local oversight for nuclear waste was introduced by Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces. His Senate Bill 95, co-sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, had the intent to create some state oversight for the proposed Holtec project.
It would create another set of eyes for a project that proposes to “temporarily” park, for the next 40 years, 120,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods in shallow graves at a location that is near WIPP and Carlsbad.
I followed this bill from committee to committee and eventually onto the Senate floor, where a vote was taken late Monday night, Feb. 17. During that journey, I heard support and opposition of the bill in person. I wanted to see if New Mexican politicians could stand behind this bill or if all that mattered was growth and jobs.
I heard supporters say, “We voted you senators in to be stewards of our land and we expect you to accept this responsibility. Stand up for safety of New Mexicans!” Another bill supporter pointed out, “The spent fuel rods you want to bring to this state are the most dangerous materials ever shipped overland. Once here they will never leave. The temporary designation is a ruse, pure propaganda.”
Bill opponents scoffed at these ideas. Executives of Holtec claimed there was no danger. All safety issues were worked out. They pointed to WIPP and said the skilled workers already were in place. One openly hostile senator assured us, “The feds are taking care of this; there’s no need for New Mexico to get involved.” The city manager of Carlsbad had one simple statement: “We oppose this bill. We want the jobs.”
In the end, SB 95 was defeated by a vote on the Senate floor, with 25 senators voting no and 16 voting yes. The bill did not go to the House, leaving the Holtec project without New Mexico oversight this year.
On the federal level, we have another story. Remember, the feds have to issue the license to operate this interim waste storage facility. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not ruled on this license application yet.
I can’t close with a generalization about all state politicians, but I can say it seems to me that the majority of our senators are simply not worried about accepting the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. They see no downside and they are not afraid to say so.