Nuclear regulator OKs New Mexico spent fuel facility opposed by state, federal officials

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The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Tuesday announced it issued an interim license for a facility in New Mexico to store spent nuclear fuel.

In the announcement, the NRC authorized New Jersey-based Holtec International to construct the facility in Lea County, which is in the southeastern part of the state. The NRC license allows Holtec to transfer and store 8,680 metric tons, or 500 canisters, of nuclear waste over the next four decades.

The company has announced plans to ultimately store as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over a 19-phase process, each step of which will require further NRC review.

“The spent fuel must be stored in canisters and cask systems certified by the NRC as meeting standards for protection against leakage, radiation dose rates, and criticality under normal and accident conditions. The canisters are required to be sealed prior to arrival at the facility,” the NRC wrote. “They will be inspected upon arrival and will remain sealed during onsite handling and storage activities.”

The NRC is independent of the executive branch, but its five commissioners are appointed to five-year terms by the president and are subject to Senate confirmation.

State officials and New Mexico’s congressional delegation have long been vocal opponents of siting the facility in the state. The state has sued to stop the plan for the facility, and in March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed a bill to block Holtec from building the facility.

It’s unclear whether the state law will withstand legal scrutiny, but on March 21, Grisham wrote to the NRC to ask that the agency “immediately suspend any further consideration of the Holtec license application.”

“I have been strongly opposed to the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in New Mexico, which would pose serious risks to our communities. But today’s announcement paves the way for New Mexico to be home for indefinite storage of spent nuclear fuel,” Sen. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) said in a statement to The Hill. “This approach — over the objections of many local, state, and federal leaders — is unacceptable.”

Fellow New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said, “No matter how many times NRC and Holtec use the word ‘interim,’ it doesn’t make it so.”

“Until there is a permanent repository for our nation’s spent nuclear fuel, no regulatory commission should be using ‘interim’ standards to approve ‘indefinite’ storage. New Mexicans didn’t sign up for this,” Heinrich said in a statement.

The Hill has reached out to Grisham’s office for comment.

Updated at 6:14 p.m.

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