• April 24th, 2024
  • Wednesday, 08:03:19 PM

Law to Ban High-Level Nuclear Waste Storage Facility Effective in June


New Mexico State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces). (Photo: NM Legislature)

By Danielle Prokop


A state ban on high-level nuclear waste will go into effect in June, blocking a private company’s ability to build a contentious storage facility in southern New Mexico.


Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Senate Bill 53 into law March 17. The bill did not have the votes for an emergency enaction, so it goes into effect June 15.


The new law has two provisions.


The first expands the scope and duties for a task force to consult state agencies on nuclear disposal and investigate its impacts on New Mexico.


The second bans storage of high-level nuclear waste. The ban is in effect until two conditions are met – the state agrees to open a facility to handle waste, and the federal government has adopted a permanent underground storage site for nuclear waste.


“We do need a permanent solution. But New Mexico can’t just be the convenient sacrifice zone for the country’s contamination,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) in an interview.


High level radioactive waste is extremely toxic. Some types will remain highly radioactive for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Short doses of exposure can be fatal. If radioactive waste leaches into the groundwater or soils, it can move through the food chain.


Kayleigh Warren, miembro de Santa Clara Pueblo y coordinadora de salud y justicia en la organización sin ánimo de lucro Tewa Women United. (Photo: Tewa Women United)

The state ban would include regulations on Holtec International’s plans for an underground facility for spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power reactors and other high-level radioactive waste from across the country.


At its peak, Holtec projected the facility could hold 176,600 metric tons of waste aboveground on more than 1,000 acres between Hobbs and Carlsbad.


“This bill is another major obstacle that will prevent this site from ever receiving any nuclear waste,” said Don Hancock, Nuclear Waste Safety program director and administrator at the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center.


The region already hosts the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), an underground site that stores clothes, tools, rags and other items contaminated with radioactive waste. The new law does not impact WIPP.


In July 2021, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency that oversees nuclear operations, gave preliminary nod to the facility in an environmental impact statement, over the objections of people living there, the governor and members of the congressional delegation. Days after the law was signed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission pushed back, issuing its final decision to license the facility. In a March 20 letter to Holtec, the agency wrote it will publish a final safety evaluation and determine if a license will be issued in May 2023.


Steinborn, who sponsored the bill in the past two legislative sessions, said the task force will now also report each year to the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials interim committee. The task force is made up of secretaries or appointees from seven state departments, now including the Indian Affairs Department and the State Land Office.


Kayleigh Warren, a member of Santa Clara Pueblo and a health and justice coordinator at the nonprofit Tewa Women United, called the four-page bill “an important first step.”


“It’s a way our state can start to communicate to the rest of our county that we’ve done our part,” Warren said. “We’re not interested in being a sacrifice zone for the country’s waste anymore.


Tewa Women United protests the impacts of toxins from Los Alamos National Laboratory on water and land in the Española valley and surrounding Pueblos. Looking forward, a key issue is how tribal governments will participate on the task force.


“New Mexico can’t just be the convenient sacrifice zone for the country’s contamination.”
State Senator Jeff Steinborn


Native Americans are disproportionately vulnerable from uranium mining on the Navajo Nation or exposed at higher rates to radiation in water supplies.


“I want to see how our voices become part of these conversations moving forward,” Warren said.



Danielle Prokop is a reporter with Source New Mexico. This article is republished from Source New Mexico under a Creative Commons license.