Efforts to limit the amount of nuclear waste in New Mexico took a major step forward Wednesday as lawmakers introduced a bill that would essentially ban the storage of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico.

Senate Bill 53 and a companion bill in the house would amend New Mexico’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Act, prohibiting state agencies from issuing permits to certain types of waste storage facilities. Introduced by Democrat Jeff Steinborn in the Senate and Democrat Rep. Matthew McQueen in the House, the measure is specifically tailored to block plans by the company Holtec International to store commercial nuclear waste on 1,040 acres of scrubland between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

This part of southern New Mexico is already home to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the only repository in the country that stores radioactive waste deep underground. But unlike the Holtec project, which would take spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste, WIPP only disposes of “transuranic” waste, which consists of objects like tools and clothing that have been contaminated with radioactive material.

Due to the dangers posed by the type of waste Holtec plans to store, the facility has met vocal opposition in New Mexico ever since the company unveiled its plans in 2021. According to Holtec’s environmental impact statement, the facility could bring in as much as 173,600 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste to New Mexico from commercial power plants all over the country. The waste would reach the Holtec facility by rail, moving waste through many parts of the state.

Last year, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that a license be issued for Holtec’s project, triggering a wellspring of opposition among activists, residents and politicians, who fear the facility will become a permanent repository and transform New Mexico into the nation’s nuclear waste dump.

“The eastern half of the country has 90 percent of the waste and has benefited from nuclear power — why are they not willing to step up to do long-term storage?” said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC). “The government in New Mexico has said over and over that, no we are not the dumping ground.”

Steinborn introduced the bill on Jan. 18 in the wake of a new poll commissioned by the SRIC, the Center for Civic Policy and the Center for Civic Action, which showed widespread opposition to the Holtec facility. Of the 1,015 New Mexico voters surveyed, 60 percent opposed the project, 30 percent supported it, and the rest were undecided. The majority of those surveyed from southeastern New Mexico also opposed the project. Steinborn and McQueen introduced similar bills in 2022 but the matter died in committee. 

“People understand that this threat is imminent for New Mexico. Even if Holtec were to go away tomorrow there may be another proposal in a year or two,” Steinborn told Searchlight New Mexico in an interview. “New Mexico has sacrificed enough for the nuclear mission.”

The bill now heads to committee for consideration. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already signaled her support for the measure and, in July, urged legislators to deliver a nuclear waste bill to her desk in the current session.

“The state of New Mexico will not become a dumping ground for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel due to Congress’s failure to identify a permanent disposal solution for commercial nuclear waste,” Lujan Grisham said in her statement. “My message to the state Legislature is clear: deliver a proposal to my desk that protects New Mexico from becoming the de facto home of the country’s spent nuclear fuel and it will have my full support.”

Clarification: The NRC last year recommended that a license be issued for the Holtec project. It did not approve the project, as an earlier version of this story stated.

Lindsay Fendt

Lindsay Fendt got her start covering the environment as a reporter for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica. She covered human rights, immigration and the environment throughout Latin America before...