SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Senate on Monday approved a proposed ban on the local disposal of spent nuclear fuel, unless the state provides its consent first.
The bill from Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, could impact a proposed multibillion-dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that is expected to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants across the nation. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may announce a decision as soon as March on whether to grant a license to that project from Holtec International.
The Senate endorsed the bill on a 21-13 vote with Republicans and two Albuquerque-based Democrats in opposition to the proposed ban. The bill moves next to the state House for consideration, amid backing from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Steinborn said New Mexico residents should be wary of becoming “guinea pigs” for temporary storage projects before the federal government decides on a permanent storage site.
His proposal found support among Democratic legislators, including Sen. Brenda McKenna, of Corrales, who noted New Mexico already grapples with the impacts of Uranium mining.
“What I’m really tired of is hearing over the decades of how our resources have been excavated and then things get dumped here,” she said. “I’m tired of New Mexico being exploited this way.”
Several legislators expressed concern that the bill from Steinborn would challenge longstanding federal authority over nuclear safety matters and lead to new court challenges.
“We’ll find out where the state’s authority ends,” said Democratic state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, of Las Cruces, an attorney who voted in support.
New Mexico and neighboring Texas already have sued in federal court over two proposed multibillion-dollar interim storage facilities for spent fuel— the one in southeastern New Mexico and another in Andrews County, Texas.
New Mexico Republican Sen. Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, voted against the bill and expressed confidence in the safety vetting of proposed transportation and storage containers that would be used to bring spent nuclear fuel to New Mexico by rail.
Democratic state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, of Albuquerque, also voted no, saying it was wrong to overrule significant local community support at close range to a proposed storage site.
Nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it, according to the Department of Energy. The federal government pays to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.