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Nuclear Colonialism: Indigenous opposition grows against proposal for nation’s largest nuclear storage facility in NM via NM Political Report

By Kendra Chamberlain

A proposal for New Mexico to house one of the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facilities has drawn opposition from nearly every indigenous nation in the state. Nuclear Issues Study Group co-founder and Diné organizer Leona Morgan told state legislators last week the project, if approved, would perpetuate a legacy of nuclear colonialism against New Mexico’s indigenous communities and people of color. 

Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico.

The proposal, which has been in the works since 2011, would see high-level waste generated at nuclear power plants across the country transported to New Mexico for storage at the proposed facility along the Lea-Eddy county line between Hobbs and Carlsbad. Holtec representatives say the facility would be a temporary solution to the nation’s growing nuclear waste problem, but currently there is no federal plan to build a permanent repository for the waste.

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Morgan briefed members of the Legislature’s interim Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on how the proposal fits into a wider pattern of negligence and environmental racism on behalf of the federal government towards one of the United States’ poorest majority-minority states. 

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“We see this as environmental racism and perpetuating nuclear colonialism that is going to result in a continuation of a slow genocide,” she said.

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Holtec’s proposal would see the majority of high-level nuclear waste in the U.S. transported to a consolidated interim storage facility located in southeastern New Mexico. If licensed, the facility would house up to 100,000 metric tons of high-level waste at capacity — more nuclear waste than currently exists in the country — for up to 40 years, while the federal government either re-opens Yucca Mountain or establishes a new deep repository to permanently store the waste.

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Nuclear colonialism and legacy waste 

Nuclear colonialism, a term first coined by environmentalist Winona LaDuke and activist Ward Churchill, describes a systematic dispossession of indigenous lands, the exploitation of cultural resources, and a history of subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples by a government to further nuclear production of energy and proliferation of weapons. 

“All of the impacts from nuclear colonialism can be simplified by explaining it as environmental racism,” Morgan told state legislators last week. She pointed to the health and environmental consequences of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation during the last century.  

“My family lives in areas where there was past uranium mining. We’re still dealing with the legacy of all of the mining that fuelled World War II and the Cold War,” Morgan said. “This legacy is still unaddressed — not just in New Mexico, but in the entire country. For that reason, my concern is the health of our people, our environment.” 

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“We do not believe we are separate from the environment,” Morgan said. “We are not here to protect the environment as land and as mountains, but as living, breathing entities.” 

Similar beliefs, sometimes referred to in policy discussions as “environmental personhood,” have gained recognition among regulators in countries across the world in recent years. 

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Morgan pointed to the federal government’s management of legacy uranium waste located on the Navajo Nation.  

“The [Department of Energy] currently has two sites in New Mexico — one in Shiprock and one in Churchrock — where their alternative for clean up is no action, and they have cited, ‘let mother nature take its course, let mother nature take care of the mess,’” she said.

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