- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 23, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The state of New Mexico is strongly objecting to federal nuclear regulators’ preliminary recommendation that a license be granted to build a multibillion-dollar storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the U.S.

State officials, in a letter submitted Tuesday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the site is geologically unsuitable and technical analysis has been inadequate so far. They also say regulators have failed to consider environmental justice concerns and have therefore fallen short of requirements spelled out by federal environmental laws.

The letter also reiterates the state’s concerns that the storage facility would become a permanent dumping ground for the spent fuel, as the federal government has no permanent plan for dealing with the waste that has been piling up at nuclear power plants.

The officials pointed to a legacy of contamination in New Mexico that includes uranium mining and milling and decades of nuclear research and bomb-making at national laboratories, saying minority and low-income populations already have suffered disproportionate health and environmental effects as a result.

Given the concerns, state officials wrote that a draft environmental review of the project “fails to demonstrate that residents of New Mexico, including vulnerable populations, will be adequately protected from exposure to the radioactive and toxic contaminants that could be released to air and water by the proposed action.”

A group of Democratic state lawmakers also raised concerns, sending separate comments to the commission that pointed to resolutions passed by a number of cities and counties in New Mexico and Texas that are opposed to building the facility.

Elected leaders in southeastern New Mexico support the project, saying it would bring jobs and revenue to the region and provide a temporary option for dealing with the spent fuel.

The deadline to comment on draft environmental review was Tuesday. A study on the project’s impact on human safety is pending and will require another round of public comment.

New Jersey-based Holtec 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 executives have argued that the site is remote and geologically stable. They also have sought to ease concerns about transporting the fuel cross-country, noting that four-layer casks used to haul the material would be made of thick steel and lead and transported on a designated train with guards.

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

But New Mexico officials blasted numerous elements of the proposal in the comments submitted this week. Among other concerns, the state said that without robust surety and warrant proposals, decommissioning and reclamation of the facility could end up being the state’s responsibility if Holtec should experience financial challenges or unplanned setbacks.

Another company also is seeking a license for a similar facility that would be located across the state line in West Texas.

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