Court of Appeals ruling in Texas limits nuclear waste options


A U.S. Court of Appeals ruling earlier this year could be “the final nail in the coffin” for a proposed high-level nuclear waste storage facility in southeast New Mexico, a Las Cruces state senator said.

The ruling, which said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not have the authority to issue permits for private, temporary nuclear waste storage sites, canceled plans for a facility in Andrews County in west Texas. Andrews County has !8,610 residents and borders eastern New Mexico.

The court ruling could have “major, potentially precedent-setting, ramifications” for a proposed nuclear-waste storage site in New Mexico, state Sen. Jeff Steinborn said in a Bulletin interview.

In May, the NRC approved a proposal by Florida-based company Holtec International to open a facility in Lea County in southeast New Mexico that would store 500 canisters holding 100,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel shipped to the site from all over the United States.

“It’s a very unjust way to proceed,” said Steinborn, who sponsored New Mexico Senate Bill 53: “Storage of Certain Radioactive Waste,” during the 2023 New Mexico legislative session. Effective last June, the law prohibits the storage of radioactive materials and nuclear waste in New Mexico without the state’s consent.

It is “the first layer of protection” for the state against nuclear waste storage,” Steinborn said.

The Court of Appeals ruling “gives more power to local communities and states” when it comes to waste storage, he said.

“Our opinion does matter. Our rights do matter,” said Steinborn, who is vice chair of the New Mexico Legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee.

“This could play out in the courts or in Congress,” Steinborn said, and could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue “is too large of a decision to be made by an agency,” he said. Congress “needs to come up with a permanent solution for this waste, and the waste “should stay where it is” until that solution is reached.

The federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act that became effective in January 1983 “supports the use of deep geologic repositories for the safe storage and/or disposal of radioactive waste,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The act proposed a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in south-central Nevada in 1987, but it has never opened.

Nuclear waste is currently stored at about 80 nuclear plants around the country, Steinborn said.

“The federal government needs to take full ownership of the challenge and not pass the buck,” instead of allowing the NRC “to give a license to someone that wants to shove it down our throats.”

New Mexico is “fighting back” against becoming “the de facto permanent solution,” Steinborn said, and pressing for “a more just policy nationally (that) will appropriately manage the risk, “compensate a state handsomely” for allowing waste storage, and “not “look the other way” and allow a private company to “file an application and trigger this situation.

Studies predict 13 rail accidents during the shipping of waste to the proposed temporary-stage site in Lea County, Steinborn said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said.

And, Steinborn said, the dry cask storage proposed for the Lea County site may not be safe for the proposed 40-year storage plan.

Hearing proponents say there is “very little chance of radiological release” is “very little comfort to me,” Steinborn said. “I don’t feel better hearing that.” “What if there is no other company to take over” when Holtec’s contract expires, Steinborn asked.

“We don’t really want to be the country’s guinea pig,” Steinborn said. “Nobody wants this in their back yard.”

“Congress is a very active battlefield on this issue, as are the courts. You have so many states that want to get rid of it.