US approves temporary nuclear waste storage in New Mexico

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. nuclear energy regulator on Tuesday issued a license to Holtec International to build and operate a temporary facility to store nuclear waste from power plants, despite a New Mexico state law that could present a hurdle to the project.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said the license authorizes private company Holtec to store 500 canisters holding nearly 8,700 metric tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants for 40 years.

Holtec plans to eventually store up to 10,000 canisters in an additional 19 phases.

"Each expansion phase would require a license amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews," the agency said in a release.

The Biden administration believes that maintaining the current fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors and expanding the industry with new technologies is critical in the fight to curb climate change.

Opponents of nuclear power say the government does not yet have a permanent fix for the waste that can be toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.

A New Mexico state law that goes into effect on June 15 could complicate Holtec's plans. It bans storage of the waste, until the state agrees to handle it and until the federal government figures out permanent storage.

Former President Barack Obama's administration put an end to the Yucca Mountain waste site in Nevada, that was to be a permanent repository, after opposition from state politicians.

The Biden administration prefers a consent-based siting of nuclear waste facilities in which local communities are involved in the site selection process.

"What a path forward and timeline looks like is still to be determined," said Pat O'Brien, a Holtec spokesperson. O'Brien said "strong local support" from New Mexico counties solidifies its belief the project is viable.

The NRC issued a license in 2021 to Interim Storage Partners LLC for a proposed storage site in Andrews, Texas, but the company has not started construction.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bill Berkrot)