Supporters of the Holtec “interim” nuclear waste storage facility showcase the voice of local elected leaders as evidence that it’s the right thing to do. What they don’t do is offer any explanation of the regulatory and legal context for the storage of highly radioactive and long-lived commercial nuclear waste from all over the country.
Many state and local leaders supported Senate Bill 53, which restored the state’s authority to weigh in on the project. These include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department directors, the attorney general, the state Land Commissioner, environmentalists, faith leaders, and Indigenous and frontline communities.
Holtec boosters fault this broad coalition for not offering “alternatives” to a problem created by the federal government during more than 70 years of enabling commercial nuclear energy, knowing that permanent waste storage was a problem.
SB 53 points to the central issue, which the federal government enshrined in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The act calls for the use of deep geologic repositories for the permanent safe storage and disposal of radioactive waste and discusses the role of interim storage facilities. But the act is very clear: Interim storage facilities can be built and operated only in association with, and in close proximity to, at least one permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste.
New Mexico already stores low-level nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant — a “pilot” plant that is becoming a permanent, and expanded, facility. The Holtec facility is supposed to be another “interim” storage site for a nonexistent permanent repository. Even worse, Holtec has made it clear, and the NRC has endorsed the idea, that the “interim” facility will receive up to 19 additional nuclear waste deliveries beyond the initial load and timeframe just licensed by the NRC.
This is a cynical, backdoor attempt to create a de facto permanent repository for all commercial nuclear waste. New Mexico’s residents deserve more respect than that. Unfortunately, as a recent New Mexican story reveals, the Department of Energy is expending more taxpayer dollars on a campaign to elicit “feedback” on better community engagement to win support for “interim” storage facilities.
The Holtec/NRC partnership is an attempt to circumvent environmental and public health assessments. The NRC based its mandatory environmental impact assessment on the current small initial storage amount while publicly acknowledging there will be significant additional storage over at the site. This violates federal policy: A project cannot be broken up into segments when there is a clear unified project. The NRC must conduct an environmental impact assessment on the full project.
Finally, opponents of the “interim” Holtec facility have a plan. In 2006, more than 200 groups nationwide, including the Sierra Club, signed onto the Hardened Onsite Storage Principles for Safeguarding Nuclear Waste at Reactors. This document addresses the most important issues with on-site nuclear waste storage, which is real interim storage already used across the country. Unfortunately, these principles have not been adopted by the industry or government regulators; in the case of the Holtec facility, the NRC explicitly rejected these principles.
Instead of ignoring decades-old federal nuclear waste storage and environmental assessment policies, the NRC needs to address the HOSS principles for safe on-site storage and then engage in a transparent public process to develop permanent deep geologic storage repositories. None of us think that’s easy, but at least it can be honest.
Camilla Feibelman is Rio Grande Chapter director of the Sierra Club; Demis Foster is executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico.