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NRC to allow 8,700 metric tons of nuclear storage in New Mexico

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Tom Joyce

(The Center Square) - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will allow a company to temporarily store nuclear waste in New Mexico, to the dismay of the state’s politicians.

The NRC granted Holtec International a license to create and operate a temporary nuclear waste storage facility near Lea County, New Mexico. The license allows the company to store 500 canisters of nearly 8,700 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. Holtec plans to store up to 10,000 canisters in total.

“Each expansion phase would require a license amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews,” the NRC said in a press release.

However, New Mexican politicians are unhappy with the decision.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Attorney General Raúl Torrez, both Democrats, issued a joint statement condemning the decision.

“This decision by the NRC – which has been made despite the grave concerns of the state and the legislature over the project’s potential impacts to health, safety, and the economy – is incredibly disappointing,” they said.

“It also undermines the NRC’s alleged commitment to meaningful engagement with stakeholders, as it appears our concerns were wholly ignored and went unaddressed by Holtec and the NRC.

“We will not stop our fight to protect New Mexico from becoming a nuclear dumping ground,” they added.

“Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed and the governor signed Senate Bill 53, which will impose new, more robust state licensing requirements for this project before any construction may begin. In the meantime, 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.”

Additionally, all five members of New Mexico's congressional delegation disapproved of the decision.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, said the NRC's decision sets a bad precedent.

“I have been strongly opposed to the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in New Mexico, which would pose serious risks to our communities,” Senator Luján said in a press release. “But today’s announcement paves the way for New Mexico to be home for indefinite storage of spent nuclear fuel. This approach – over the objections of many local, state, and federal leaders – is unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Gabe Vasquez, D-New Mexico, said the agency must find a long-term solution to safely storing nuclear waste, and that this temporary fix does not solve the problem.

“Today’s decision fails to address the most critical issue that we face: the permanent and long-term storage of nuclear waste,” Vasquez said in the release. “This decision only prolongs that process but puts New Mexicans at risk. We should instead continue to focus on growing southeast New Mexico’s economy with safe, good-paying jobs that support our agriculture, outdoor recreation, tourism, and energy economies.”

President Joe Biden’s administration supports using zero-carbon nuclear energy as part of its climate strategy, an issue that sometimes divides Democratic politicians.