WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and Congress moved this year to develop interim nuclear waste storage sites, a temporary fix until the 30-year stalemate over Yucca Mountain is settled.
But locations in New Mexico and Texas that were once embraced for their potential for jobs and economic development now face local opposition similar to that in Nevada that has resulted in the decadeslong delay in building a permanent repository.
Governors in New Mexico and Texas have pleaded with the federal government to stop or delay the process that could place tons of spent nuclear fuel rods in their states.
Private groups have proposed to take the spent nuclear fuel and temporarily store the waste at locations near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and west of Odessa in Andrews County, Texas.
But the welcome has turned to concern by residents who fear the interim storage of nuclear waste will become permanent if the federal government fails to develop the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository north of Las Vegas, as required by law, or find and develop another suitable location.
The New Mexico congressional delegation wrote a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission urging the agency to delay the decision-making process and allow more time for public comment on a license sought by Holtec International to build an interim storage facility.
“Any proposal to store commercial spent nuclear fuel raises a number of health, safety and environmental issues,” the delegation wrote.
Those issues include “potential impacts on local agriculture and industry, issues related to the transportation of nuclear waste, and disproportionate impacts on Native American communities,” the lawmakers warned.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, in a letter to President Donald Trump, said she was opposed to interim storage of nuclear waste, citing the safety of residents.
Target for terrorists?
In Texas, the facility proposed by Interim Storage Partners has drawn opposition from oil and gas producers, the agriculture industry and Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, who said placing the waste near oil fields would make an inviting target for terrorists.
Shipping nuclear waste also would present a hazard to public health, Abbott said in letters to Trump and the NRC earlier this year.
Meanwhile, environmental groups in both states have lodged their opposition to the proposed plants and urged Lujan Grisham to create a state agency to prevent an interim site from becoming a permanent storage facility for nuclear waste.
As opposition continues to build, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has moved forward with the licensing process on applications to open the Texas and New Mexico interim sites.
An NRC spokesman, David McIntyre, said public input over environmental impact statements closed on the Holtec proposal in September, and the period of input closed earlier this month on the Interim Storage Partners in Texas.
NRC staff is reviewing the public comments and will prepare final environmental impact states, which are expected to be published next summer, McIntyre said.
The administration and congressional leaders have shifted direction to create interim sites to address a growing stockpile of waste.
If Lujan Grisham creates a New Mexico agency to oversee the process to be run by a private firm, it would be similar to the tack taken by Nevada in the 1980s when the governor’s office created a commission to oversee nuclear projects in the state that were spearheaded by the federal government.
Yucca Mountain’s role
Congress passed legislation in 1987 designating Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the site for permanent storage of nuclear waste from power plants and the Navy.
Although the Department of Energy applied for a construction permit with the NRC during the George W. Bush administration, the project was met with stiff local opposition.
NRC licensing stalled in 2010 when the Department of Energy, under President Barack Obama, withdrew the application. A federal court ordered the process to continue with appropriated funds, but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., blocked additional spending, which shelved the project.
Since the 1980s, nuclear waste has continued to be stored on-site at 80 nuclear power plants and defunct facilities across the United States, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Although the Trump administration tried for three years to revive the Yucca Mountain project, it flip-flopped during the 2020 presidential election year and proposed no new funding for the Nevada project. The administration instead included money in the fiscal year 2021 budget for interim storage.
While Trump reversed course on Yucca Mountain, President-elect Joe Biden, who was vice president under Obama when the project was shelved, said he was opposed to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Growing waste pile
The House and Senate also pushed spending bills to develop interim storage.
A 2017 failed attempt by Congress to revive the Yucca Mountain project included increasing the capacity of storage of spent fuel rods and materials from 77,000 metric tons to 110,000 metric tons, which is still less than half of the waste scattered around the country at various sites — a situation that many lawmakers from other states with nuclear-produced energy see as dangerous and troubling.
The total amount of nuclear waste from energy-producing plants and naval ships is expected to double by 2048, according to the Congressional Research Service.
With opposition to building interim storage in New Mexico, environmentalists are urging that state’s governor to oppose shipping nuclear waste through the state to a permanent storage site, specifically Yucca Mountain. And opponents of interim storage in both states cite legislation filed by Nevada lawmakers that would require local approval of nuclear waste storage.
Legislation filed in Congress by Rep. Dina Titus and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, both Nevada Democrats, and backed by the state’s congressional delegation, the governor and the state Legislature, would require the federal government to receive consent from local and state governments, tribal leaders and other stakeholders to build permanent or interim storage facilities.
The Nuclear Waste Policy Act, amended in 1987, designates Yucca Mountain as the sole site for permanent storage of nuclear waste.
To select another permanent site, Congress would be required to amend the act and have it signed into law by the president.