Plan for Waste Illegal, New Mexico Tells Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Lawsuit

The plan to store thousands of tons of spent uranium underground for up to 60 years isn’t authorized by Congress, the state says in a federal complaint filed Monday.

A facility in rural West Texas, on the border with New Mexico, already houses certain kinds of nuclear waste. (Photo courtesy of Waste Control Specialists)

(CN) — A plan to store nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico would endanger the state’s groundwater and residents and burden local communities with infrastructure and emergency planning costs, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the state Monday.

The state, through state Attorney General Hector Balderas, sued the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Untied States to halt the agency’s plan to hold spent uranium underground in Lea and Eddy counties for up to 60 years, when a permanent storage facility would be available.

“I am taking legal action because I want to mitigate dangers to our environment,” Balderas said in a news release. “It is fundamentally unfair for our residents to bear the risks of open-ended uncertainty.”

The lawsuit aims to block a plan to store thousands of tons of uranium in the southeast corner of the state and across the state line in Texas.

The Holtec International New Mexico facility would initially be authorized to store up to 8,680 metric tons of waste in up to 500 canisters for 40 years, then expand up to 100,000 tons in 10,000 canisters over 60 years. A separate facility across the state line in Texas would store up to 40,000 tons for 60 years, according to the lawsuit.

Under the Holtec deal, the Department of Energy would take ownership of the waste, then maintain a contract with Holtec to store it until a permanent site is available. But the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act doesn’t allow the Energy Department to take possession of waste until a permanent site is found, the plaintiff notes in the suit.

“The defendants nevertheless are going forward to license an illegal activity, which this court should declare to be illegal,” the lawsuit states.

Because work toward the only planned permanent storage facility — Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada — has ground almost to a halt, there is no reasonable hope that a permanent facility will be available by 2048 as planned, New Mexico claims.

“The NRC (and Holtec) unjustifiably rely on the assumption and pre-determination that a permanent repository will be built by 2048,” the lawsuit says. “This claim is without merit and threatens to render the proposed (temporary sites) permanent de facto storage facilities without the safeguards and assessment of impacts of a permanent facility.”

Furthermore, the law doesn’t allow the NRC to build consolidated facilities. The term “consolidated interim storage facility” doesn’t exist in federal regulations. The federal agency is attempting to “re-brand and re-work” regulations to meet its ends, the plaintiffs claim.

The plan does not address the transportation of waste to the site, which would accept radioactive waste from across the nation. Without a plan from the NRC, it would be incumbent upon New Mexico to pay for and plan infrastructure changes and emergency responses, the lawsuit says.

The original intent of temporary storage was to have smaller facilities, not massive, nationally consolidated sites that would require long-distance shipping, New Mexico argues.

“Surely Congress did not intend for NRC to leave the crucial questions of responsibility and liability for transport of nuclear waste unanswered and unexamined,” the lawsuit says.

The plan also endangers the New Mexico environment because it lies in an area with shallow groundwater — something multiple state agencies alerted the NRC to, the lawsuit states.

The state is asking the court to declare that the NRC has no authority to license interim storage facilities and that the proposed facilities would impose illegal, unfunded mandates and for an injunction halting work on the plans.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Public Affairs office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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