By Kelly Lundeen and Leona Morgan
If you check the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) interactive map you can pinpoint all the earthquakes that have happened in the past day on the entire Earth. Most people believe earthquakes happen along fault lines related to uncontrollable shifts in tectonic plates. Nowadays, modern oil and gas production alters that simplistic view when wastewater is injected back into the ground inducing human-made earthquakes.
On November 16, 2022, the largest earthquake ever to hit the Permian Basin in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico, with a magnitude of 5.4, shook an area over 300 miles in diameter. Forbes reported November 25 that the frequency of earthquakes in the area has risen exponentially since the recent boom in oil and gas production. Until 2016, there were fewer than 10 quakes of magnitude 3.0 and less per year. In shocking contrast, during 2022 there were a projected 185 quakes of the same strength. If you visit the USGS website daily you are more likely than not to find an earthquake in the Permian Basin within the past 24 hours.
What does this have to do with radioactive waste? The consolidated interim storage (CIS) site for radioactive waste from commercial nuclear energy production proposed by Holtec International is only 60 miles from the November 16 quake. Also within the Permian Basin is a second CIS proposed by Interim Storage Partners (ISP), approximately 40 miles east of the Holtec site and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) for nuclear weapons waste, 14 miles south of the Holtec site.
Seismic activity or not, a recent statewide poll commissioned by the Center for Civic Policy of 1,015 New Mexican voters shows they overwhelmingly oppose the storage of the waste in their state, even temporarily, with 60 percent opposing, 30 percent in favor, and 10 percent undecided on the project. The poll points out the projected accident rate for rail transportation from the Final Environmental Impact Statement: 13 accidents over a 20-year period.
The recent train derailments in Ohio bring to mind the harrowing risks to communities along waste transportation routes running from nuclear reactor sites to the Southwest.
Don Gallegos, New Mexico Transportation Division State Legislative Director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, states, “Safety on the railroads is neither negotiable or certain. The 2023 accident in East Palestine, Ohio is a failure in automation and precision scheduled railroading.”
The two largest counties in New Mexico, Bernalillo and Doña Ana, have passed resolutions opposing the proposed CIS and transport, joining a list of Indigenous Nations, municipalities, and counties in New Mexico and Texas. The governor of New Mexico has agreed to sign legislation requiring state consent for a radioactive waste storage facility if it were to arrive at her desk, as was done in Texas.
That is exactly the intention of New Mexico Senate Bill 53. At the time of publishing, the New Mexico Legislature had less than 10 days to pass this legislation which was already approved by the New Mexico State Senate and the House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee. SB53 must pass the House Judiciary Committee and House Floor before it lands on the Governor’s desk.
Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) continues to promote a paid “consent-based siting” process. DOE has offered $26 million to 16 communities nationwide willing to consider hosting the waste. DOE will announce the awardees in summer 2023.
The Holtec proposal in New Mexico is expected to receive the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rubber stamp for its license in March, while the ISP project was approved in 2021. Despite this green light, legal challenges and potential state laws may prevent these CIS sites from operating.
— Leona Morgan (she/her) is a Diné activist and community organizer fighting nuclear colonialism, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.