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N.M. governor urged to fight nuclear-waste storage project

by The Associated. Press | October 13, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Environmentalists and watchdog groups want New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to create a government agency tasked with keeping the state from becoming a permanent dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste.

Dozens of groups sent a letter to the Democratic governor on Friday. They pointed to Nevada's success in mothballing the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository project in that state and asked the governor to consider similar measures to protect New Mexico.

"New Mexico's people and our environment deserve better treatment than a plan offering millions of years of a public health menace from radioactive waste spreading into our soil, air, water and rivers," the letter states. "Please consider what more aggressive steps can be taken to defeat the Holtec plan."

New Jersey-based Holtec is seeking a 40-year license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. Company executives have said the project is needed because the federal government has yet to find a permanent solution for dealing with the tons of spent fuel building up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

The first phase of the project calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters.

Holtec has said the site in New Mexico -- about 35 miles from Carlsbad -- is remote and geologically stable. The company also has said the four-layer casks that would hold the spent fuel would be made of steel and lead and transported on a guarded train.

State officials in comments recently submitted to federal regulators opposed a preliminary recommendation by staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that a license be granted to Holtec to build the multibillion-dollar facility. They said technical analysis has been inadequate and accused regulators of failing to consider environmental justice concerns and meet requirements spelled out by federal environmental laws.

Dave McCoy of Citizen Action is among those who signed the letter sent to Lujan Grisham. He said Monday that there's a push to approve New Mexico for "interim" storage knowing that the waste will never leave.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to questions about what options she might consider as the licensing process continues.

In Nevada, the state's commission on nuclear projects was created in the 1980s to advise the governor and state lawmakers on matters related to the disposal of radioactive waste and to oversee activities of the state's Agency for Nuclear Projects. Agency officials over the years challenged the U.S. Energy Department, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuclear energy lobby.

Elected leaders in southeastern New Mexico have supported Holtec's plans, saying the project will lead to more investment and jobs in the region. The area already is home to the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository.

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