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Grave Concerns About Storing More Nuclear Waste In New Mexico

Peter Goodman

Commentary: The proposal to store all the nation's spent nuclear fuel rods in New Mexico raises more questions than I can fit into a column. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's public comment period ends July 30th.


It's “temporary” (thus will be buried just 30 feet deep) but given the history, it'll probably be here forever. New Mexico would likely become a de facto permanent dump site for the most dangerous radioactive waste, at a site designed only for temporary storage. With aging canisters, it is unlikely the waste would move again. Storage casks, canisters and the site itself are not necessarily designed for permanent disposal. Leaks, cracks, and contamination may result. Opponents say that most low-level radioactive-waste dumps have leaked, and remediation costs have been over a billion dollars.


Transportation is critical – and not addressed in the proposal. They'd move the rods in thousands of rail deliveries over twenty years. Since some would come from the West Coast, shipments would pass through El Paso and/or Las Cruces. Each rail car has about as much plutonium as we dropped on Nagasaki – although not in bomb-grade form. (If the site's temporary, these would move again.)

Terrorists will love all those targets; and terrorism may continue and increase. (When proponents say containers would be “invulnerable,” it sounds like White Star Lines promoting a big ship in 1913.) 


Steve Pearce and Susanna Martinez say this'll be perfectly safe. During the next 20 years, every time a passing train awakens me, I'll go back to sleep easier knowing that they say so – they've proven so wise and dispassionate!


I can't calculate the odds on a disaster; but they're not zero, unless this project doesn't happen. State Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-Albuquerque) has said, “The idea that we are going to give a for-profit company, the ability to handle uranium that is going to be radioactive and deadly for six million years … to me that seems ridiculous.” 


Governments and companies have budget troubles. Safety and infrastructure can suffer. We could be talking not about a pothole but a deteriorating railroad or lax safety procedures. An accident could have disastrous consequences. 


A private company isn't subject to open-meetings, IPRA, and other open-government requirements that would help us elicit facts about an accident. 


Environmentalists and New Mexico's oil-and-gas industry finally agree on something. An oil company safety manager testified before New Mexico lawmakers last month that leaks at the facility could have devastating impacts on the state’s extraction industry. 


Our vulnerability will worry many Las Crucens, perhaps muting some folks' enjoyment of our remote desert. Would associating New Mexico with nuclear waste encourage folks to move here? 


Yes, the federal government and the nuclear industry have screwed things up by not dealing with permanent storage. But knowing something should be done doesn't mean signing up to be the victims.


All this for what? Additional jobs in eastern New Mexico, some of them temporary, and some incentive payments to host communities. 


Las Cruces is considering voicing opposition in a resolution, as Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and some other local governments have – to protect citizens.


Jeff Steinborn is chair of the legislative committee holding hearings on this. There's a key hearing scheduled for July 19th in Hobbs.


I urge you to read up on this – what both sides are saying – and express your view to the NRC, the Las Cruces City Council, and Senator Steinborn.