In fight over Holtec nuclear storage site, Native Americans appeal to one of their own via lohud

Nuclear waste canisters would come to New Mexico by barge and rail from shuttered nuclear plants like Indian Point in Buchanan and Oyster Creek in New Jersey and others where nuclear waste is housed.

Adrian HeddenThomas C. Zambito

  • Holtec International wants to build a temporary storage site in the New Mexico desert to hold nuclear waste from power plants in New York, New Jersey and across the U.S.
  • Holtec’s plan is running into opposition from Native American groups who don’t want New Mexico to be a ‘dumping ground’ for the nation’s nuclear waste
  • Native American groups have appealed for help to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American and former congresswoman in New Mexico.
  • Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker, whose village is home to Indian Point, sympathized with the concerns expressed by Native American groups, saying the federal government needs to settle on a permanent home for the nation’s nuclear waste

For Leona Morgan, Holtec International’s plan to deliver the nation’s nuclear waste to a desert region in southeast New Mexico is the latest affront to Native Americans in a centuries-long struggle over land they once called their own.


To Morgan, the battle over Holtec’s plan shares a history with the bloody campaign to wrest land away from Native American tribes as the country expanded westward. And it continued into the last century when New Mexico welcomed sites for testing and developing nuclear weapons, in what’s been dubbed “nuclear colonialism.”

The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan during World War II were secretly tested at the Los Alamos laboratories in northern New Mexico during the Manhattan Project. The state is home to a uranium enrichment plant, two nuclear research laboratories and a storage facility for low-level nuclear waste.


Holtec, which is based in Camden, NJ, wants to store some 8,680 metric tons of uranium in 500 cement and steel canisters in underground silos at a 1,000-acre site located between Carlsbad and Hobbs. The site would be temporary until the federal government designates a permanent repository for the 83,000 metric tons of uranium, enough to fill a football field 30 feet high, stranded at 75 operating or shuttered power plants in 33 states.


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given preliminary approval for the project, with a final decision on Holtec’s license bid due in January. And the New Mexico counties of Eddy and Lea have been touting the economic benefits of a project that will create jobs and diversify a local economy whose fortunes are tied to the boom and bust of the oil and gas industry.

And so, with few other places to go, New Mexico’s Native American activists have turned their attention to Washington where they see an ally in Deb Haaland, who heads the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Haaland is the first Native American appointed to the cabinet, a member of the Navajo Nation and the Laguna Pueblo in northern New Mexico.

As the head of an agency that oversees the nation’s natural resources and public land, Haaland could play a pivotal role in the project’s future.


Native American groups say the fate of the Holtec project could come down to a test of Haaland’s loyalty to the people of her pueblo.

These groups have appealed to the history they share and to Haaland’s connection to the 35 generations of Navajo people who came before her.


Buchanan mayor shares concern

Buchanan Mayor Theresa Knickerbocker empathizes with the concerns expressed by Morgan and others. Her village on the shores of the Hudson River is home to Indian Point, which shut down in April after generating electricity for Westchester County and New York City for nearly 60 years.

Holtec took over the site in May with a promise to dismantle and demolish the site’s three reactors over the next 15 years.

But dozens of canisters of spent fuel will remain at the 240-acre site, hindering redevelopment efforts, which Buchanan could use to recoup the roughly $3.5 million in annual tax dollars it will  be losing. And the canisters will remain there until there’s someplace to send them.


But in 2019, Haaland called the Holtec project “a risk to the health and safety of New Mexicans, our economy and our environment.” At the time she was representing New Mexico’s First Congressional District, which encompasses most of the state’s major urban centers surrounding Albuquerque.

She was joined by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a fellow Democrat who said giving Holtec the 40-year license it’s seeking to operate the plant would be “economic malpractice.”

In March, the state’s attorney general sued to block Holtec’s plan, citing the impact it would have on the state’s agricultural economy as well as the oil and gas industry.


Over 20 years, Holtec said it will invest $3 billion in the local economy, and create hundreds of jobs.

“Each community has a different concern,” said Holtec spokesman Gerges Scott, who’s spent the last two years traveling to communities throughout the state.

“We just want to address each one of those,” he said. “A lot of the communities that we met with were concerned with emergency management. There was a lot of open communication and we didn’t get any push back. We were telling them what the project is, and they were telling us what they’re capable of.”


Spent fuel near Carlsbad Caverns

The location of the storage facility could also stymie future development of industries like outdoor recreation, Kenney said, which the state hopes could diversity its economy.

“When people understand that this is the spent nuclear capital of the U.S., next to the (Carlsbad) Caverns, what’s that going to do for outdoor and tourism and for the state as a whole?” Kenney said.


Knickerbocker said the federal government should abide by its promise to build a permanent repository.

“The focus has to be on a permanent repository,” Knickerbocker said. “You can’t just have it all over the country. The federal government needs to step up to the plate and make it happen.”

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