The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized the construction of a spent nuclear fuel storage facility in Lea County, NM despite concerns from state officials
The commission's approval allows Holtec International, an energy firm based in New Jersey, to construct and manage the facility in southeastern New Mexico. However, Holtec may still need to secure permits from the state, a process that top New Mexico officials have promised to contest.
Spent fuel, consisting of uranium pellets encased in metal rods, is extremely hot and radioactive. Its handling requires both mechanical assistance and physical shielding, typically provided by steel or concrete.
Holtec's proposed facility in New Mexico is expected to provide temporary storage for up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. It could potentially be expanded to accommodate up to 10,000 canisters over a span of 60 years, with the material being transported to the site via rail.
Many critics express concern that the majority of the waste will be transported from the East Coast, given the recent railway accidents involving various chemicals and cargo.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, along with the state's congressional delegation, expressed fears that New Mexico would become the national repository for spent nuclear fuel, given the lack of a permanent waste management solution for the country's commercial reactors.
ABC7 received a joint statement from New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez saying, “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. 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. 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 March, New Mexico approved legislation aimed at thwarting the project. State Senator Jeff Steinborn, who sponsored the measure, commented on the NRC's actions, underlining the significance of New Mexico's prohibition on high-level nuclear waste storage and disposal.
Holtec countered these concerns, stating that the New Mexico measure is superseded by federal law and that a legal battle would merely postpone the economic benefits anticipated from the project's construction. The company has already spent approximately $80 million pursuing a 40-year license for the facility.
While Holtec and some elected leaders from southeastern New Mexico are advocating for a temporary solution to the nation's spent nuclear fuel issue, critics argue that the transportation of highly radioactive waste carries inherent risks. Despite these concerns, Holtec officials maintain that the casks used to store spent fuel have been shown to not release radiation, even in the event of a derailment.
In Texas, elected officials failed to prevent the NRC from licensing a similar project in 2021. The controversial site, located near the Texas-New Mexico border, is where Integrated Storage Partners LLC plans to store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and about 230 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste for 40 years. Future phases could increase that capacity to 40,000 metric tons of fuel.