New Mexico opts for veto power over spent fuel debate

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — The New Mexico governor signed legislation Friday to prevent spent nuclear fuel produced by commercial U.S. nuclear power plants from being shipped to the state, hours after the measure passed its latest legislative hurdle.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wasted no time adding her signature after the New Mexico House voted 35-28 in favor of the bill after lengthy debate. Five Democrats joined opposition Republicans in arguing that the measure would challenge long-standing federal authority on nuclear safety and lead to new judicial challenges.

The bill by Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, will impact a proposed multibillion-dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that would have the capacity to temporarily store up to 8,680 tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for up to 10,000 spent fuel canisters over six decades.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon announce a decision on whether to license the project led by Holtec International, which has spent about $80 million over the past eight years on the approval process.

Lujan Grisham and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation have expressed strong opposition to building the facility along the state’s border with Texas. Both states have sued the federal government over the matter, and senior elected officials in Texas have been unsuccessful in their efforts to prevent a similar facility in neighboring Andrews County from being licensed.

If a license is granted for the complex in New Mexico, permission from the state Department of the Environment would still be required. That’s where critics say the state could lean into legislation and stop the project.

Rep. Gail Chasey, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said there was no incentive for states with nuclear power plants to find permanent solutions to deal with spent fuel. As long as New Mexico is seen as an option, those states won’t care about the long-term effects, she said.

“The problem is, this is a forever decision. We can’t decide, oh, let’s not do that again and take it away,” Chasey said. So he thinks about the fact that if it was such a profitable and good thing, then the states that produced it would have it near their facilities.”

According to the US Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 tons of radioactive waste annually, most of which remains in place because there’s nowhere else to put it.

Since the federal government has failed to build permanent storage, it reimburses utilities to house the fuel. That cost is projected to extend into tens of billions of dollars over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

The fuel sits in temporary storage in nearly three dozen states, encased in steel-lined concrete waterholes or steel-and-concrete containers known as barrels.

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has spoken of reviewing recommendations made a decade ago by a blue-ribbon commission on America’s nuclear future. In November, her agency issued a request for input on a consensus-based location process to identify places to store commercial spent nuclear fuel.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has singled out nuclear power as essential to achieving its goals of creating a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.

Some lawmakers in southeastern New Mexico said local elected officials and residents would welcome the Holtec project and that visits to some of the current storage sites near power plants have shown that the barrels are safe.

They also touted the safety of transporting the material by rail in New Mexico, saying that there would be armed guards aboard the trains and that tests showed the barrels would not release radiation in the event of a derailment.

Republican Representative Cathrynn Brown, whose district includes the proposed Holtec site, said the region already hosts the federal government’s only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated during nuclear research and bomb-making. It also houses a uranium enrichment plant.

The legislation sends a message to companies to “invest all you want and then we’ll pull the rug out from under you,” Brown said. “And I don’t think that’s right.”

However, other lawmakers have expressed concern about the project as it would be located within the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. New Mexico gets a significant portion of its revenue from drilling.

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