NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – After news broke that U.S. regulators approved a license for Holtec International to store nuclear waste in New Mexico, some local advocates and politicians are pushing back as the company calls the news a ‘milestone.’

Tuesday, May 9, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its decision to approve licensing for expanded storage of nuclear waste in New Mexico. New Mexico is already home to tens of thousands of containers of nuclear waste, located underground near Carlsbad, and the federal government has now approved another storage site roughly half way between Carlsbad and Hobbs.

For some time, community leaders have been dreading the decision from regulators to approve an additional storage facility. Lawmakers, including Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) have spoken in opposition, and the U.S. Department of Energy did say they’re open to community input. But now, the proposed Holtec International site is moving forward.

“It’s a milestone for us,” Patrick O’Brien, Holtec International’s director of government affairs and communications, told KRQE News 13. “It’s been a culmination of an eight-year process. You know, our goal was to bring safe, secure, temporary and retrievable spent fuel storage to help the nation’s spent fuel storage dilemma.”

But some politicians and community advocates are worried about what the news means for New Mexico.

“This is a bad idea, full stop,” New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard said in a press release. “Placing a nuclear storage facility in the heart of oil and gas operations is a recipe for ecological disaster and unnecessarily puts New Mexicans at risk. While I understand the need to store our nation’s nuclear waste, the world’s most active oil- and gas-producing field is not the right place. Holtec needs to understand that New Mexico is not the nation’s dumping ground and should stop misleading the public about the dangers their proposal presents.”

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a law to try to give New Mexico a greater voice in federal discussions over where waste is stored. Senator Jeff Steinborn (D-Doña Ana) was a key advocate of that bill.

“Today’s actions by the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] illustrate the importance of New Mexico’s new prohibition on the storage and disposal of high-level nuclear waste. It’s time that our voice be heard and honored, and that this project be shut down,” Steinborn said in a press release.

In response to concerns, O’Brien from Holtec International says safety is the key priority for the company.

“Safety is our number one goal as well, and obviously as a part of the process to get even to where we are today with final licensure, there was a very lengthy environmental study conducted that brought in all [interested] parties,” O’Brien says. “I live in a community with a nuclear power plant and spent nuclear fuel, so I understand the trepidation that some people may have.” But O’Brien says Holtec International does see support from the local community too.

Now that the federal license has been granted, the project moves forward. Once complete, Holtec International says the underground storage facility will be protected from threats such as airborne missiles and will be stable enough to allow local fracking, drilling, and potash operations to continue.

Holtec International also says the project will create around 400 jobs in southeast New Mexico and represents an investment of roughly $3 billion. But giving the extent of opposition from advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter and indigenous activists such as Leona Morgan, there’s likely to be more pushback before the project is complete.

“As Indigenous Peoples, we cannot trust the feds to ‘Do the Right Thing,’ as they are failing us on what to do with this waste. New Mexico is saying enough is enough! Indigenous Peoples have been here since time immemorial, and we will continue to fight to protect our homelands for just as long,” Morgan, a Diné anti-nuclear activist and community organizer, said in a press release.