Legislation that blocks the proposed construction of a storage facility for the nation’s nuclear waste in Southeast New Mexico passed into law Friday, March 17 at the New Mexico State Legislature. The bill, formally known as Senate Bill 53, was passed 35-28 and was signed into law by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham the same day.
The company Holtec International had planned to construct and operate the site that would have housed nuclear waste from commercial power plants around the United States, transported by railway into New Mexico. The bill states that no disposal facilities can be created without the state’s consent and creates a radioactive waste consultation task force to negotiate on behalf of the state with the federal government.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission could still issue a permit to Holtec to build this facility, which could lead to a court case on the matter, according to Eileen O'Shaughnessy, co-founder and organizer with grassroots group Demand Nuclear Abolition.
The law signifies Lujan Grisham’s follow through on a promise made last year in reaction to the NRC’s approval of the storage facility.
“My message to the state Legislature is clear: deliver a proposal to my desk that protects New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country’s spent nuclear fuel and it will have my full support,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a press release.
The amount of nuclear waste that is produced by New Mexico is very low, according to Rep. Debra Sariñana, who sponsored the legislation.
“As a state, we produce very little just up at (Los Alamos National Laboratory) as far as high-level nuclear waste. So bringing it from all over this country is just not something we need,” Sariñana said.
The state of New Mexico has a long history with the nuclear industry. However, this history has often caused harm to Indigenous communities and land, according to Sariñana.
“We have not been helped by the federal government (that) much as far as cleanup. If you look at uranium cleanup, we have it from the Navajo Nation to Gallup to Laguna, and it's just now … (that they’re) starting to clean it up after 40, 50, 60 years,” Sariñana said.
Rep. Cathrynn Brown, who opposed the legislation, said that New Mexico doesn’t have the authority to stop the NRC from greenlighting the Holtec project in the first place. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 places final authority over nuclear waste disposal in federal hands.
However, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, a proposed long-term storage facility in Nevada, was stopped due to local resistance, according to O'Shaughnessy.
Dale Janway, Carlsbad mayor, was frustrated with the site being blocked; Carlsbad is in close proximity to the proposed location of the site.
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“It is also frustrating that opposition to nuclear projects often seem to be based on unfounded fears, not on actual reality,” Janway wrote in a press release.
For O'Shaughnessy, these fears are not unfounded due to the state’s long history with the nuclear industry.
“(Janway) completely negates this entire history of the way that New Mexico, in particular, has been negatively impacted by the nuclear industry … (There) are real horrific things that have happened in the past connected to nuclear production, and there are continuing to be things that communities are having to deal with, like intergenerational trauma and harm. And that is not unfounded,” O'Shaughnessy, said.
The largest radioactive spill in U.S. history occurred near Churchrock, New Mexico in 1979. 94 million gallons of radioactive waste rushed into the Puerco River after the dam of an evaporation pond that continued radioactive materials burst, according to a study conducted in May 2014 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
With the Holtec site blocked in New Mexico, the nation will still have to find somewhere to store the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. O'Shaughnessy said that the nuclear industry is, as a colleague once described to her, like “a plane without landing gear.”
“We (have got to) find some landing gear for this plane that we've built and try to land it in a way that is not going to harm future generations,” O'Shaughnessy said.
The implications of this bill stretch beyond today to future generations of New Mexicans, according to Sariñana.
“I have a granddaughter who was born during this session. She is almost 6 weeks old, and I don’t want her to look up in 40 years and look at me and say ‘Grandma, why didn’t you stop this? Why did you allow all this nuclear waste to come to our state.’ That’s what I do not want to hear,” Sariñana said.
Gillian Barkhurst is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com