- Associated Press - Saturday, March 21, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are requesting that federal regulators extend the public comment period for an environmental review related to a multibillion-dollar complex that would store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the United States.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently issued a preliminary recommendation, favoring approval of a license for Holtec International to build the facility in southeastern New Mexico.

The comment period is set at 60 days, but the New Mexico congressional leaders say that should be extended and any public meetings delayed given the health emergency that has resulted from the new coronavirus.

“The proposal to store high-level nuclear waste has prompted a great deal of public interest across New Mexico,” they wrote in a letter sent Friday to the commission chairman. “The concerns are driven in part by the prospect that any temporary storage facility will remain in the state indefinitely while a pathway for permanent disposal for high-level radioactive waste is identified.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if the commission would entertain the request, as the federal government is moving ahead with numerous rule-makings and comment periods involving other government projects.

New Jersey-based Holtec International is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad. The first phase calls for storing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which would be packed into 500 canisters. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent nuclear fuel.

Holtec said the U.S. currently has more than 80,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel in storage at dozens of sites around the country and the inventory is growing at a rate of about 2,000 metric tons per year.

The NRC staff’s preliminary recommendation states there are no environmental impacts that would preclude the commission from issuing a license for environmental reasons. That recommendation was based on a review of Holtec’s application and consultation with local, state, tribal and federal officials.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other top elected officials are among those who have long had concerns about the potential environmental effects and the prospects of the state becoming a permanent dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel because the federal government lacks a permanent plan for what to do with the waste piling up at power plants around the country.

The governor and others also have questions about whether the facility would compromise oil and gas development in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s most prolific energy production regions.

There were a handful of public meetings in 2018, and another round was set to begin in the coming weeks.

“NRC has been running on auto-pilot to approve the Holtec license application, but hopefully this letter from the delegation will help them to wake up to the pandemic,” said Don Hancock with the watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center.

The governor has issued several orders in recent days limiting public gatherings as restaurants and other businesses have been forced to cutback their operations as part of the state’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Lujan, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small all signed Friday’s letter to the commission. They’re asking that regulators wait for the threat of COVID-19 to pass and to schedule public meetings at locations around New Mexico to allow ample opportunity for full participation.

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