New Mexico Isn’t Welcoming Nuclear Waste With Open Arms

The problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste has haunted the United States for six decades. It’s now landed on New Mexico’s doorstep.

Drums of highly toxic radioactive transuranic wastes inside a salt cavern at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, March 2006

Credit: Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

For 30 years, a plan to use the tunneled-out bowels of Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada to dispose of the country’s high-level nuclear waste has been a subject of controversy. The plan has been deeply unpopular due to safety and long-held equity concerns, and the people of Nevada stand in overwhelming opposition to the volcanic, fault-riddled mountain becoming a final resting place for the radioactive waste piling up at power plants and other sites across 35 states.

A current proposal suggests an alternate—and also controversial—solution: Park the waste in New Mexico for the time being, in a temporary storage facility between the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, with the assumption that Yucca Mountain (or maybe some other site in New Mexico) will take the waste later, sometime in the near or distant future. To no one’s surprise, few New Mexicans are rubbing their hands in anticipation of becoming the nation’s de facto nuclear waste dump.

In the meantime, the nuclear waste backlog keeps growing, as does the risk of accidents and toxic leaks into the air and groundwater. The waste—nuclear fission products such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, along with plutonium—comes largely from nuclear power plants, which have accumulated decades’ worth of spent fuel and currently do not provide for that material’s safe and permanent disposal. A smaller (but no less problematic) amount of radioactive waste comes from the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The firm proposing the New Mexico interim storage facility is Holtec International, a company that specializes in designing and building container systems for nuclear waste. These containers are used onsite at nuclear power plants, where spent fuel has to stay, by law, until there is a permanent disposal site. Holtec has been working with the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA), a consortium of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and the counties of Eddy and Lea, and has applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build the $2.4 billion interim storage facility.

Holtec officials and those who support the proposal argue that the facility would be an economic boost for the region, generating about 100 temporary construction jobs and 100 permanent positions. They also say that the host communities would receive an incentive payment to be shared with the state.

Making it legal

ELEA has been trying for some time to get a nuclear project up and running on its 1,000-acre site about a dozen miles north of the already operating Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). That facility is the world’s only operating deep geologic nuclear waste repository—and a contentious and controversial project in its own right. It serves as a disposal site for transuranic (TRU) radioactive waste, a long-lived and dangerous substance created by the production of nuclear weapons in the United States.

Nuclear waste shipments en route to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in 2011
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr

The proposed ELEA temporary storage site was originally purchased during the George W. Bush administration for a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility, explains Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. Such facilities involve an inherently dangerous activity: the separation of nuclear weapons–usable plutonium from the highly radioactive waste surrounding it, so that the plutonium can eventually be fabricated into fresh fuel for commercial reactors. The risks are steep: The resulting stockpiles of separated plutonium and uranium can be mislaid, poorly accounted for, stolen by black marketeers with help from insiders, assaulted by terrorists, or diverted by another nation state, agency, or subnational group to a secret weapons program. Spent fuel reprocessing has been abandoned as a security risk as far back as the Carter administration for all these reasons, the most significant being its contribution to nuclear weapons proliferation. The Bush administration tried to revive the concept, only to have it killed again by the Obama administration, says Hancock.

Since then, ELEA has been looking for another nuclear project, which is where Holtec’s proposal comes in. To succeed, the company will not only need to overcome potential local and statewide opposition; they'll also have to change federal law.

Hancock notes that Holtec proposal proponents have been working hard at both. “They are telling Congress that all the people in New Mexico want this, so they can change the law with H.R. 3053, which is sponsored by Congressman Shimkus, a Yucca Mountain supporter.” (John Shimkus [R-IL] is also the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on environment.)

The new legislation—passed by the House on May 10, 2018—would alter the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which requires that there be a permanent disposal site before moving spent nuclear fuel. Among other things, the bill would allow the waste from nuclear reactors to be consolidated at a storage facility like the one proposed by Holtec before Yucca Mountain is ready for use. That’s a major shift.

The will of the people

In response to questions about the public reaction to the Holtec proposal, the company’s vice president of corporate business development, Joy Russell, wrote in an email that “the project has significant support in the local area and in the state of New Mexico.” She provided no additional details about the support.

Meanwhile, both of New Mexico’s senators have pushed for more public input on the proposal, and the Democratic candidate for governor, congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, has opposed it. “This bill will only create more uncertainty by creating a dangerous loophole that could permanently strand nuclear waste in New Mexico without any guarantee that a long-term strategy will eventually be agreed upon,” Grisham told a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. “Storing and transporting nuclear waste is incredibly dangerous. Singling out New Mexico and Nevada, and making massive policy changes based purely on political considerations, is completely irresponsible.”

Her opponent, Republican congressman Steve Pearce, voted in favor of H.R. 3053, believing that the project “would continue to cement New Mexico as a national leader in nuclear energy production, development, and disposal.”

Closer to home, a diverse group of more than 45 local and statewide church leaders have submitted a letter of concern about the project to the NRC, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and New Mexico’s congressional delegation. “We are concerned that the decisions to approve this project will be made without adequate time for communities to understand the project and voice their concerns,” reads the letter.

While the people of Eddy and Lea Counties have not conducted a local survey or issued a referendum on the matter, Nick King, pastor of the Carlsbad Mennonite Church and a cosigner on the church leaders’ letter, calls their response “pretty mixed.” He noted both sides: “Some people say there’s a lot of money in it, so it’s ‘Gung ho!’ There’s also a lot of concerns about making this the waste dump of America.”

Still, King adds, “most people aren’t even aware of this,” despite the grave health risks that could arise from potential radiation exposure. And some might not distinguish it from the WIPP facility, which stores waste several thousand feet underground in a huge salt deposit, he said. The Holtec facility would receive thousands of metric tons of nuclear waste shipped in from across the country (New Mexico itself has no commercial nuclear power plants), and large canisters of waste would be placed just below the surface of the ground, encased in stainless steel and concrete—a substantially less secure method than deep geological disposal.

“There’s a lot of us who don’t understand all of the ramifications of this,” King admits. Could there be leaks to the air and groundwater or other hazards? “And how are we going to guarantee,” he wonders, “that it’s going to be put into permanent storage?”

Hancock also points out that there is a fundamental contradiction in the economic arguments in favor of the storage facility. “None of this waste is from New Mexico,” he says. “If it is so safe and good for the economy, then why do these other states not want it?”


Even if the Holtec proposal is awarded a license from the NRC and H.R. 3053 becomes law, opponents could still find ways to prevent the facility from being built in New Mexico. Citizens could look to Utah for an example. There, local opposition to a private fuel-storage site already licensed by the NRC was so great that a Republican lawmaker finally resorted to creating a wilderness area near the site to cut off its access to transportation, Hancock explained. And in Nevada, opponents of Yucca Mountain have used transportation, water rights, and many other issues as levers to fight the project, which was designated by the federal government on federal land without the state’s consent.

Yucca Mountain, Nevada
Credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr

For their part, New Mexico’s leaders could exert state control over the allocation of water resources to the ELEA site, or they could block the site by refusing to authorize the building of rails to deliver canisters of waste over state lands, for instance. But that’s just the local part of the transportation matter.

“They want to say that only folks in Eddy and Lea Counties have to deal with it,” says Hancock. “But not so.” Nuclear waste would have to come through the Dallas–Fort Worth area, for instance. Would those people have any say in the matter?

“It’s a real dilemma,” says King, who can understand how people might want to send the waste to the wide-open spaces of southeastern New Mexico. “It’s gotta go somewhere.”

“We are looking for a way to move past the stalemate,” says NRDC attorney Geoffrey Fettus, who in 2016, with colleagues, offered several specific recommendations to do just that, as part of a file of public comments submitted to DOE concerning Yucca Mountain. Among them was to put more stringent environmental and public health safeguards in place so that any potential interim storage facilities, like the one proposed by Holtec, could not become permanent.

One thing that’s not negotiable: the dangers of nuclear waste, some of which will remain toxic for longer than people have inhabited the earth. How the country copes with the urgent issue of ultimate disposal to protect this and future generations remains a question, one that can be adequately answered only if states and their people have a say.

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