ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico lawmakers are considering a pair of nonbinding measures that would signal support for the development of a temporary storage facility to house spent nuclear fuel that has been piling up at reactors around the nation.
The Senate Conservation Committee approved one of the memorials on a 6-3 vote during Thursday's meeting. The other is awaiting consideration by the full House.
Neither holds any legal weight, but supporters said Thursday that an endorsement from the state Legislature would help in what is likely to be a competitive process as the federal government weighs proposals for what to do with thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel.
"The bottom line is we think this is a great project for our part of the state," said John Heaton, a former state lawmaker and chairman of the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a consortium of city and county governments that has partnered with an international firm in the race to build an interim storage facility.
"As most of you who live in rural communities know, it's tough out there and we have to make our own way," Heaton told the committee.
The project would result in about 150 jobs and capital investment of more than $1 billion, he said.
Other leaders from the region testified in support of the memorial, but environmentalists voiced concerns about New Mexico becoming the nation's nuclear dumping ground.
"We don't believe nuclear energy is a bright path into the future. We believe nuclear generation is a ticking time bomb," said Dan Lorimier with the Sierra Club.
Southeast New Mexico is still rebounding from the closure of the government's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where a chemical reaction inside a drum of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory resulted in a radiation release in February 2014. Despite contamination of parts of the underground repository, the U.S. Department of Energy is aiming to resume some operations by the end of 2016.
The proposed storage facility sought by the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance would be designed to handle spent nuclear fuel from power plants, not the kind of defense-related waste that was shipped to WIPP.
Federal officials have said the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. depends on the ability to manage and dispose of used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. The DOE has plans to begin considering locations for interim storage facilities as part of its plan to spur the use of nuclear power and develop the transportation and storage infrastructure needed to manage the waste.
Heaton acknowledged the application and license process could take a few years.