Holtec Nuclear Waste Project’s Opponents Seek Role for New Mexico

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Brenna Goth

New Mexico’s attorney general thinks the state can do little to stop Holtec International’s application to temporarily store high-level waste from commercial nuclear reactors, but that doesn’t deter critics of the project.

A state lawmaker and an environmentalist who oppose the project to store the toxic trash in New Mexico before it is buried forever at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain or another site said they believe the state—and not just the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission—can exert some influence over the Holtec project’s future.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) recently assessed the state’s role in regulating Holtec’s plan to store the radioactive materials in rural southeast New Mexico near the the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). An Energy Department facility that stores a different type of nuclear waste generated from weapons production, WIPP was subject to some state reviews before opening in 1999.

Holtec has an application before the NRC for a temporary place to keep nuclear waste from commercial power plants throughout the U.S. while the federal government develops permanent storage deep underground. There’s no timeline for permanent storage, as work on Yucca Mountain has long been stalled and has been met with intense opposition from Nevada lawmakers.

The plan to consolidate used fuel in New Mexico has drawn support for its potential economic impact and criticism for a range of health of safety concerns. Candidates running in November to replace Gov. Susana Martinez (R) have had conflicting views on the project.

But of all the factors that the NRC considers when awarding a license for temporary storage, “state approval is not among them,” said the attorney general’s July 19 letter, released to Bloomberg Environment under New Mexico’s public-records law.

Federal Law Governs Project

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D), who requested the attorney general’s opinion, told Bloomberg Environment the answers are “troubling.” Steinborn chairs a legislative committee on radioactive materials that has held hearings on Camden, N.J.-based Holtec’s proposal.

Steinborn said he’s “basically opposed” to the project given unanswered questions on the impacts to the state. He wants New Mexico to take an active role in the license review process and said the state can’t “put its head in the sand.”

Prior litigation shows the NRC can license the temporary storage facilities, said the attorney general’s letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General John Kreienkamp. Federal law pre-empts state laws when it came to nuclear waste regulation, he wrote.

The NRC, though, does provide protection against Holtec abandoning the site by requiring licensees to plan for and financially back eventual decommissioning. State tort law may help if people were injured or sickened by Holtec’s operations, the opinion said.

Holtec won’t abandon the site if it receives NRC approval, Joy Russell, Holtec’s vice president of corporate business development, told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

Holtec is a “financially stable, respected, and responsible supplier,” Russell said. The company agrees with the attorney general’s opinion that “no company can just simply abandon their responsibilities to hold the license,” she said.

New Mexico should consider joining the license review by becoming an NRC “cooperating agency” to have more influence on the proposal, Steinborn said. State and local agencies with certain expertise can make an agreement with the commission to weigh in on it.

New Mexico, if interested, would have to contact the NRC for consideration, commission spokesman David McIntyre told Bloomberg Environment in an email.

Transportation Eyed for State Role

Nuclear watchdogs concur that the federal government doesn’t need New Mexico’s approval to award a license. But the state could do more to stop the project’s progress if leaders want to, Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program and administrator at the Albuquerque environmental group Southwest Research and Information Center, told Bloomberg Environment.

Hancock, who opposes the proposal, said Holtec would need New Mexico’s cooperation elsewhere, such as help with moving nuclear waste through the state. A proposed nuclear storage project in Utah, for example, received a license but never accepted waste after opponents there raised questions about transportation, as well as other concerns.

“They do have mechanisms to do it outside the licensing process,” Hancock said of New Mexico officials.

The cities of Albuquerque and Las Cruces, as well as Bernalillo County, have voted to formally oppose Holtec’s project. Gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has spoken against it, while challenger Steve Pearce (R) said it could boost the state economically.

The decision “should ultimately be up to the local community and the state,” Pearce told Bloomberg Environment in a statement. Lujan Grisham’s campaign didn’t respond to a request from Bloomberg Environment.

Either way, states have limited authority to regulate projects such as what Holtec is proposing compared to other kinds of hazardous waste, Geoffrey Fettus, senior attorney at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, told Bloomberg Environment. Fettus was an assistant attorney general in New Mexico in the 1990s and works on nuclear waste issues.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has recommended giving states more power.

The NRC is starting to review the environmental impacts of the Holtec proposal. The public can request a separate hearing on the plan through Sept. 14, which would put Holtec’s application in front of judges from the commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel.

Request Environment & Energy Report