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New Mexicans Speak Out About Radioactive Waste Risks

Commentary: Prominent New Mexicans raised concerns today at a legislative hearing (PDF) about a controversial plan to bring deadly high-level radioactive waste to their state. The Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee of the New Mexico Legislature heard from invited speakers, including Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb, about the risks of rail transportation and whether the state is prepared to handle a nuclear waste emergency. State lawmakers also heard from representatives of the oil and gas and dairy industries, farmers, cattle ranchers, and faith and community leaders.

Holtec International seeks to establish an “interim” storage site for the nation’s deadly high-level radioactive waste, which it plans to store for at least 120 years. But the waste could remain there forever if there is no political will to move it or if there is not adequate funding to do so. The company plans to transport 10,000 canisters of irradiated reactor fuel rods from around the country and store them about two feet below the surface in the Southwestern state. This is more deadly waste than has been created by all U.S. nuclear reactors to date and would post significant risks not only as the waste is transported but while it is stored.

“There is everything to lose with this plan to bring the nation’s high-level radioactive waste to New Mexico. The risks to health, safety, security and financial well-being are immense. People must act now to stop this massive mistake, which would imperil people in New Mexico as well as those along transport routes throughout the country,” said Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition in her testimony. The SEED Coalition has been working with local allies in opposing Holtec’s application to establish the New Mexico site.

The Holtec project would lead to dangerous extensive transport of high-level radioactive waste that would travel through major U.S. cities, over major aquifers and across tribal and agricultural lands. Without routes that are designated, the public cannot adequately comment on the potential impacts of this massive project. Seven serious rail accidents have occurred in the past three years in New Mexico. A U.S. Department of Energy report found that a small radioactive release could result in a 42-square-mile area being contaminated and that the cost of cleaning up a single square mile of an urban area could reach $9.5 billion.

“There is growing opposition to the proposed radioactive waste project,” said Rose Gardner, a Eunice resident and founding member of AFES, the Alliance for Environmental Strategies in her testimony. “There was overwhelming public opposition at five U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) meetings. Resolutions opposing Holtec’s project and waste transportation have been passed by Bernalillo County, the cities of Albuquerque, Lake Arthur and Jal, and by the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.”  

Climate change and heat can make radioactive storage even more dangerous because waste storage casks might become faulty under higher temperatures. Additionally, torrential rains could flood nearby playa lakes and cause water to get into the casks. Canisters need to be repackaged if they deteriorate or leak. Currently, there are no repackaging facilities for deteriorated canisters in Holtec’s application, as it is not legally required.

“Why should New Mexico or Texas take the waste? New Mexico didn’t receive the power or get any benefit from the nuclear reactors that produced it. Dumping the waste on New Mexico would be environmental injustice at its worst,” Gardner said.

Comments to the NRC regarding the Holtec application are due July 30. Comments can be submitted at NoNuclearWaste.org or https://action.citizen.org/p/dia/action4/common/public/?action_KEY=13813.