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Southwest Tribes Oppose Spent Nuclear Fuels Storage Plans


Native American leaders from New Mexico are opposing plans that call for storing in the desert Southwest tons of spent nuclear fuel from power plants around the U.S.   The All Pueblo Council of Governors in a resolution adopted late last week affirmed its commitment to protecting tribal natural and cultural resources.

The council — representing 20 sovereign pueblo nations — is worried about risks associated with transporting the waste from dozens of commercial reactors in numerous states to the planned storage facilities in New Mexico and West Texas.

Council Chairman E. Paul Torres said in a statement Monday that the projects lack meaningful consultation with tribes and would subject “our communities, environment and sacred sites to unimaginable risk over many decades.”  

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, members of the congressional delegation and environmentalists already have come out against the plans, arguing that the state could become a permanent dump for the waste since the federal government has yet to develop any long-term solutions for handling the fuel. About 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel generated by commercial reactors is stored around the nation, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That number will grow as nuclear power plants keep operating.

New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque, and other municipalities have adopted resolutions opposing the interim storage projects.  The tribes also pointed to a lack of resources and emergency response training in case of an accidental radiological release.

Elected leaders in communities closest to the planned New Mexico facility are in favor of building the multibillion-dollar complex, saying it would bring jobs and revenues to Eddy and Lea counties. New Jersey-based Holtec International is seeking a 40-year license from federal regulators to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad that could house about 120,000 metric tons of used fuel. Holtec has said the site in New Mexico is remote and geologically stable. The company also has said the four-layer casks that would hold the spent fuel would be made of thick steel and lead and transported on a designated train with guards and guns. Holtec expects the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide on the license for the storage facility in 2021. If approved, construction could start soon after.

Interim Storage Partners LLC is seeking a license to build a similar facility in Andrews County, Texas. Developed in eight phases, that facility would have the capacity to store around 40,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel.