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‘New Mexico oftentimes doesn’t get a say in its future.’

Earlier this year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a 40-year license to Holtec International. The company plans to build an interim storage facility between Hobbs and Carlsbad, and the waste would come from power plants that Holtec, a private company, is decommissioning elsewhere in the United States.

New Mexico has a long history with the federal government’s nuclear weapons program and its waste, some of which is interred at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. 

What Holtec is planning is different. And to understand, we need to look back a few decades.

In 1982, Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. That law was supposed to establish a “comprehensive national program for the safe, permanent disposal of radioactive waste.”

Then, in 1987, Congress amended the act and named Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the permanent repository. The federal government spent more than 30 years—and more than $15 billion—planning that repository. Despite Nevada’s opposition to the plan, it wasn’t until two years ago that the Biden administration finally took Yucca Mountain off the table.

But of course, the spent fuel hasn’t just disappeared.

Today, there’s nuclear waste at more than 100 sites in 39 states. Some of that waste is from weapons. But most comes from power plants. In fact, in the United States, there’s about 97,000 tons of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

And there’s still no safe, permanent place to put it.

Or community that wants it.

And that’s where a thousand-acre plot of land in southeastern New Mexico comes into the picture.

As part of our special, “New Mexico’s Nuclear Underground,” I spoke with John Heaton, a former New Mexico state representative and chair of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance. That’s a limited liability company owned by the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, and Eddy and Lea counties.

The group formed in 2006 to bid on a proposed federal project, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership’s Consolidated Fuel Treatment Center and Advanced Recycling Reactor. The alliance also bought a thousand acres of land between Hobbs and Carlsbad. (You can read the alliance’s original characterization of the land in the final siting reporting it submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy in 2007.)

After that federal proposal fell through, the alliance worked to recruit Holtec to New Mexico. 

The two signed an agreement, and in 2017, Holtec applied to the NRC, to build an interim storage site on the alliance’s land.

Holtec also agreed it would buy the land if the NRC approved the license. 

In our special show, John Heaton—who, along with other local officials, is listed as a member of Holtec’s leadership team—talked about why he believes bringing spent fuel to southeastern New Mexico is safe. And why it makes sense.

Heaton and I spoke for a long time—54 minutes, actually. Since interviews on New Mexico in Focus typically air at about eight to thirteen minutes, we didn’t share the entire conversation. But I had a lot of questions for him, and he was generous with his time. 

And Since Heaton brought up Senate Bill 53 and its sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, I also invited Steinborn onto the show. You’ll all remember that this year, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill prohibiting state agencies from issuing permits, contracts, or leases for the facility—unless the state approves the facility or the federal government moves forward with a permanent storage spot for the nation’s commercial nuclear waste.

A woman wearing a water-themed t-shirt sitting in a chair.

To offer a big picture view of the issues, Dr. Myrriah Gómez, a professor at the University of New Mexico, came on to talk about commercial nuclear waste in the context of her research and her book, Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos.

According to Gómez, nuclear colonialism is the “third major settler colonial period” in New Mexico history. In her book, she explored five tenets of nuclear colonialism, including: intergenerational trauma, disease and death, contamination, secrecy and obscurity, and environmental racism.

Of secrecy and obscurity, Gómez wrote: “Nuclear colonialism was built on secrecy…and the nuclear industrial complex today continues to operate by obscuring details. Those details range from imminent threats of nuclear disposal sites to deciding who is and is not a downwinder, for example. It also deals with decision-making processes. By leaving out Nuevomexicanas/os from decision-making processes involving their environment, the secrecy of the nuclear industry persists today.”

My hope with this special episode was to pull back the veil, even just a bit. 

And with that in mind, here are source materials you should see for yourself:

The NRC’s press release about its approval of Holtec’s license

All of the application documents from Holtec to the NRC

NRC’s Backgrounder on Radioactive Waste

Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, Report to the Secretary of Energy (2012)

Final Environmental Impact Statement for Holtec’s license 

U.S. Department of Energy awards $26 million to support consent-based siting for spent nuclear fuel 

Holtec whistleblower lawsuit (Kevin O’Rourke v. Holtec International et al.)

NRC Backgrounder on Nuclear Insurance and Disaster Relief

2020 letter from 50 groups to NRC 

DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy’s “5 Fast Facts About Spent Nuclear Fuel”

New Mexico Rail Routes map

You’ll notice that I’ve included a link to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). That’s a good place to look for specific information about Holtec’s plans in New Mexico, and to find details about things like transportation and economics. In some cases, these details differ from what project proponents tell legislators and the public.  

For example, according to the EIS, the estimated peak construction force is 80 jobs. At full build out, the operations workforce would include 40 regular employees and 15 security staff. In addition, I noticed within that document that according to Holtec, there would be 73 shipments of waste per year via rail, or about one every five days. 

There’s also something happening in Texas that New Mexicans should pay attention to right now.

Last week, a federal court sided with the state of Texas (as well as Fasken Land and Minerals Limited and the Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners) against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The court also vacated a license the NRC had approved for an interim storage site in Texas. 

In many ways, it’s similar to what has transpired in New Mexico: The NRC had issued a license to a private company to build an interim nuclear waste storage facility near the Texas-New Mexico border—in Andrews County, Texas, which had passed a local resolution supporting the facility. 

The court notes that following the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations in 2012, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez supported private companies storing spent nuclear fuel in the two states. In Texas, that support eroded when the oil and gas industry pushed back—and in 2021, with the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Legislature passed a bill making it illegal to “dispose of or store high level radioactive waste” in the state. 

Now, according to the federal court: “The Atomic Energy Act does not confer on the Commission the broad authority it claims to issue licenses for private parties to store spent nuclear fuel away-from-the-reactor. The Atomic Energy Act does not confer on the Commission the broad authority it claims to issue licenses for private parties to store spent nuclear fuel away-from-the-reactor.” 

Here’s a link to the court’s decision, which I recommend reading. There’s a lot of interesting context and background information.

All that said, Holtec’s story in New Mexico is not over. 

And, there’s still the growing problem of safely storing nuclear waste from power plants. 

Even a glance at the headlines reveals how fervently communities are resisting the release of any radioactive materials from decommissioned power plants—plants that have been in their regions for decades. (Go ahead and use the Google news search for “Holtec” and you’ll find more news stories every week.)

A lot of people in those communities are upset, afraid, and worried. And their legislators and other state officials are responding with bans, denied permits, and increased watchfulness. All of that, combined with a lack of federal action on a permanent repository, should keep New Mexicans engaged. 

As Steinborn noted, “The concern here is that New Mexico, once again, will be the dumping ground of the nation, of the country’s contamination.” And, he added: “You tend to find that this fight is between those that want to get rid of the waste and those that maybe don’t have as much political power to stop it.”

The nuclear colonization of New Mexico is not just a local issue, as Gómez wrote in her book. It is a global one. And, she said: “New Mexico oftentimes doesn’t get a say in its future.”

Just one last thing about “New Mexico’s Nuclear Underground.” During the special, I mentioned news stories from other reporters and other states. Here are links to those, as well as to a few others that have been published since we recorded the interviews:

“The dangerous business of dismantling America’s aging nuclear plants” (Douglas MacMillan, The Washington Post)

‘We’ve done this before.’ Holtec denied discharge into Cape Cod Bay, in draft state ruling” (Heather McCarron, Cape Cod Times)

“New York Passes Ban on Dumping Nuclear Waste Into the Hudson” (Christine Zhu, Bloomberg Law)

“Plan to discharge water into Hudson River from closed nuclear plant sparks uproar” (Michael Hill, Associated Press)

“NM ready to defend new nuclear waste bill against industry and federal opposition” (Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico)

“Holtec Releases Some Pilgrim Wastewater as Gas” (Christine Legere, The Provincetown Independent

“Material from Oyster Creek exceeded radiation limits: Officials” (Asbury Park Press

“Holtec nuclear power plant permit likely to be denied. Public outcry was swift – and loud.’” (David R. Smith, The Patriot Ledger)

“Voices heard: DEP takes testimony on Holtec’s water disposal plan for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station” (Jennette Barnes, CAI) 

“Groups call for Indian Point waste management to involve public” (Times Union)

“Whistleblower: Holtec Now Evaporating Nuclear Wastes” (Tao Woolf, The Falmouth Enterprise)

Finally, as I mentioned last week, the Rio Grande is forecast to dry in the Albuquerque stretch. 

So many people were alarmed and upset when it happened last year, for the first time in four decades. As the drying likely occurs two years in a row, I’m thinking again about how we remember the river and dream its future. It’s something I’ve written about a bunch—in 2020 for the Santa Fe Reporter, and also back in 2014

I’ve thought regularly about a conversation with biologists Christopher Hoagstrom and Tom Turner at a Nob Hill bar almost 10 years ago:

“’Human cultures rise and fall on water—and we’re a part of that,’ Christopher Hoagstrom [a professor at Weber State University and former US Fish and Wildlife Service fishery biologist] says. ‘People think of the Rio Grande as something that’s separate from their lives or from what they’re doing. But it’s an indicator, and the drying is a foreshadowing. If we dry the river, it shows we’re using water unsustainably.’

Biologist Tom Turner agrees. He’s a professor at the University of New Mexico, and the curator for fish at the Museum of Southwestern Biology.  

‘If the river dries, in two or even one generation, no one would remember it was there,” he says. “And the buyer’s remorse is unrealized. It’s hard to learn from your mistakes; it’s hard to establish a memory that’s lost.’”

Thanks for reading—and for watching “New Mexico’s Nuclear Underground.” 

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