Coronavirus pandemic could delay licensing of nuclear waste facility near Carlsbad

New Mexico’s congresspeople called on the federal government to extend a public comment period for an environmental impact statement (EIS) on a proposal by Holtec International to build a nuclear waste repository in southeast New Mexico.


Gov. Chris Christie, Camden Mayor Dana Redd and other officials spoke about the international firm’s role in reviving the city during a Sept. 7 ribbon-cutting.

The letter signed by U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and U.S. Reps. Xochitl Torres Small, Ben Ray Lujan Deb Haaland (D-NM), urged the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to extend the 60-day public comment period until public hearings could be held in New Mexico.

The request followed a State ban on gatherings of more than 10 people amid a global outbreak of coronavirus that left thousands dead across the world.

The comment period began Friday as the draft environmental impact statement was published in the Federal Register.

The facility would hold spent nuclear fuel rods “temporarily” from generator sites across the country, as a permanent repository is developed.

Supporters of the project pointed to the economic benefits the project could bring to southeast New Mexico, but opponents cited perceived dangers of bringing more nuclear waste to New Mexico, via rail, from across the country, and burying it near subsurface oil and gas drilling operations.

“In response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we urge the Commission to delay any public meetings and to extend the 60-day public comment period regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Holtec’s proposed spent nuclear fuel storage facility in southeast New Mexico,” the delegation’s letter read.

“The recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control is that public gatherings should not be held at this time.”

The congresspeople argued public participation from New Mexicans was essential to a fair review of the EIS, as it could affect other industries such as oil and gas and agriculture.

“We believe it is essential to the NRC to provide an open and transparent review process with ample opportunity for public input on Holtec’s proposal,” read the letter.

“Any proposal to store commercial spent nuclear fuel raises a number of health, safety and environment issues, including potential impacts on local agriculture and industry, issues related to the transportation of nuclear waste, and disproportionate impacts on Native American communities.”

In 2018, five public hearings were held on the project in New Mexico and across the country, with New Mexico activist groups raising concerns that the “temporary” facility could become permanent, argued the congresspeople.

They also demanded the NRC schedule public meetings across New Mexico on the EIS to allow for the state’s “full participation.”

“The concerns are in part driven by the prospect that any temporary storage facility will remain in the state indefinitely while a pathway for permanent disposal for high-level radioactive waste is identified,” the letter read.

“We respectfully urge you to extend the public comment period until the threat of COVID-19 has passed and it is again safe to attend public meetings.”


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