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State, feds to lock horns on waste site

Commentary:

The United States government has a nuclear waste storage problem, and it sees its solution in southeast New Mexico.

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the application by a Florida-based company named Holtec to build a new waste storage facility in Lea County. The license authorizes Holtec to store 500 canisters holding 100,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, though Holtec plans to eventually store up to 10,000 canisters, shipped in from nuclear power plants around the country.

Which gives state leaders good reason to doubt that this facility will be temporary.

The New Mexico Legislature did all it could during the last session to throw roadblocks in front of the project. Senate Bill 53, sponsored by Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, requires that the state consent to the new facility and that a permanent storage facility be in operation before any construction permits can be granted.

Holtec will undoubtedly challenge the new law in court, which will bring countersuits from the state. “We are evaluating available legal recourse and will take any action necessary to make sure that ground is never broken on this ‘interim’ facility in New Mexico,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Raul Torrez vowed in a joint press release.

Meanwhile, about 88,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is being stored onsite at 77 different nuclear reactors spread across 35 states, and that is increasing by about 2,000 metric tons a year, according to a March story in Scientific American. The current storage sites are only constructed to be safe for decades.

Original plans to build a storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were scuttled by the political power of former U.S. Senate Leader Harry Reid. Now, the political might of New Mexico’s state leaders and members of Congress will apparently be put to the test.

Several years ago I was given a tour of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, which is an abandoned underground salt mine where low-level waste is being held. I came away convinced that was about as safe as we can get.

The bitter experiences of New Mexico residents exposed to radiation following the explosion at Trinity Site give us good reason to distrust the federal government. The “downwinders” here remain the only ones harmed during the early days of testing who have not been compensated.

It seems clear that the waste will eventually be stored deep underground, which will limit the number of states where a federal storage site can be located.

I support the effort by state leaders to put the brakes on the Holtec plan. While I was impressed by WIPP, I also note that it was intended to be a “pilot plant.” Yet it's still flying solo. Only a fool would believe the Holtec site would be temporary.

The nation does need a central repository, and New Mexico may prove to be the safest site available. But that decision needs to come from an open and transparent process.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com