TUES: US regulators OK spent nuclear fuel facility in New Mexico, + More
US regulators OK spent nuclear fuel facility in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
U.S. nuclear regulators licensed a multibillion-dollar complex to temporarily store tons of spent nuclear fuel in New Mexico from commercial power plants around the nation, a decision likely to be challenged in court.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its decision Tuesday, saying it will allow the energy company Holtec International to build and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico. New Jersey-based Holtec may still need to acquire permits from the state, and top New Mexico officials have vowed to fight the project.
Hot and highly radioactive, spent fuel consists of uranium pellets inside metal rods. It can only be handled by machines and people have to be physically shielded from it, usually by steel or concrete.
The New Mexico project would have capacity to temporarily store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters over six decades. The material would be transported to New Mexico via rail.
Critics say most would be brought from East Coast sites, prompting concern after recent railway accidents involving other chemicals and cargo.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state's congressional delegation say they fear New Mexico will become the nation's dumping ground for spent nuclear fuel because the federal government has no permanent solution for the waste piling up at commercial reactors around the country.
New Mexico approved legislation in March aimed at stopping the project.
"Today's actions by the NRC 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," said state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Democrat who sponsored the measure.
Holtec has argued that the New Mexico measure is pre-empted by federal law and that a court fight would only delay the economic boon that would come from building the complex. The company has spent an estimated $80 million pursuing the 40-year license to build and operate the facility.
"This milestone is the culmination of an eight-year process to bring a safe, secure, temporary and retrievable private facility to help the nation's spent fuel storage dilemma," Holtec said in a statement thanking regulators.
Company officials and some elected leaders from southeastern New Mexico have been pushing hard to offer what they call a temporary solution to the nation's problem of spent nuclear fuel. Commercial nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of spent fuel each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, with most of it remaining at the sites that produce it because there's nowhere else to put it. Commercial reactors have generated about 90,000 metric tons of spent fuel since the 1950s. If all of it were stacked together, the agency said the material could fit on a single football field at a depth of less than 10 yards.
Since the federal government has failed to build a permanent repository, it reimburses utilities to house the fuel in either steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks at sites in nearly three dozen states. The cost of that practice is expected to stretch into the tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist with the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, said transporting highly radioactive waste is inherently high risk and that the casks would be among the heaviest loads on roads, rails and waterways.
"They would test the structural integrity of badly degraded rails, for example, risking derailments," he said.
Holtec officials have disputed those claims, saying testing has shown the casks used to hold spent fuel would not release radiation even in the event of a derailment.
President Joe Biden has received dueling letters from project supporters and from Lujan Grisham as well as others who oppose it. The administration has acknowledged the role nuclear power will have to play in reaching its carbon emission goals, and earlier this year put up $26 million in grants for communities interested in studying potential of hosting interim storage sites.
Similar battles over what to do with the spent fuel have been waged in Nevada, Utah and Texas over the decades as the U.S. has struggled to find a home for the material and other radioactive waste. The proposed Yucca Mountain project in Nevada was mothballed and a temporary storage site planned on a Native American reservation in Utah was sidelined despite being licensed by the NRC in 2006.
Elected leaders in Texas were unsuccessful in keeping the NRC from licensing a similar project in 2021. The site at the center of that fight is near the Texas-New Mexico border, where Integrated Storage Partners LLC plans to store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and about 230 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste for 40 years. Future phases could boost that capacity to 40,000 metric tons of fuel.
New Mexico proposal would extend free child care, boost pay - Associated Press
New Mexico would extend indefinitely no-pay child care for most children up to age 5 with increased payment rates to private and public child care providers under proposed regulations announced Monday.
New Mexico's current child care subsidies — among the most expansive in the nation — were initiated with federal coronavirus relief money. Education officials are now grappling with financial strategies to sustain efforts to expand the reach and quality of child care services in a state with low rates of workforce participation and high rates of childhood poverty.
New Mexico in April 2022 expanded eligibility and waived co-payments for child care assistance to families earning as much as four times the federal poverty rate — equal to about $120,000 for a family of four. But the provisions are set to expire in August.
The proposed regulatory change from the Early Childhood Education and Care Department would extend those guidelines and ensure that service taxes on child care assistance are not paid by parents. Future changes to copayments would include a three-month advance notice to parents before changes take effect.
Enrollment in the assistance program has increased over the past year by nearly one-third to roughly 19,340 children under age 6, according to the department. Children ages 6 and over receive financial assistance for before-school and after-school programs.
About 72,000 children in 43,000 families are eligible for child care assistance under current rules.
The proposal still may be amended in response to comments in writing and at a public hearing in June. The changes are part of a push by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to eliminate financial barriers to an array of child care services, from infant care to private day-care for toddlers, preschool in public school settings and after-school programs.
Details of payment rate increases for child care providers have not been finalized. New Mexico has a reimbursement formula that focuses on the local cost of running child care businesses, instead of the market rate of what parents can pay.
Surging state spending on early childhood education is underwritten in part by a roughly $2 billion trust sustained by taxes on oil and natural gas production and investment income.
Additionally, voters in 2022 approved increased annual withdrawals from the state's land grant permanent fund to pay for early childhood education initiatives.
How New Mexico’s early childhood agency fared in the most recent legislative session - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
New Mexico’s pre-kindergarten education and child care agency greatly benefited from the most recent legislative session, receiving hundreds of millions more in funding from state lawmakers than it initially requested.
In the 2022 midterm elections before the recent 60-day legislative session, New Mexicans overwhelmingly voted to amend the state constitution to require the state to put more money into public education by an estimated $250 million, including $150 million to early childhood education.
That December, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department asked the Legislature for a Fiscal Year 2024 budget of more than $453.6 million.
By January, advocates educated lawmakers on what it would take to create the early childhood education workforce they want to see.
The Legislative Education Study Committee endorsed a bill asking the state to create a $50 million Tribal Education Trust Fund to start up a model that can help tribes pay to build educational programs and systems for communities across New Mexico.
The next day, Lujan Grisham, in her state of the state address, said universal child care could be supported by the Early Childhood Education Trust Fund and a universal school lunch program.
YDI Employees in February protested for higher wages at a shareholders meeting where they tried to encourage leadership to meet with ECECD and the cabinet secretary.
Lawmakers in March approved the $9.57 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2024, including an increase of $135 million for the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
Lujan Grisham signed two pieces of legislation laying out the way ECECD could use the money.
Finally on April 7, Lujan Grisham signed the Fiscal Year 2024 budget into law, including a total of $675 million for ECECD.
'Rust' movie medic gets $1.15 million partial settlement - Associated Press
A New Mexico judge has approved a $1.15 million settlement between a medic who worked on the "Rust" film set and one of several defendants she accused of negligence in the fatal 2021 shooting of a cinematographer by Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal.
Court records show the partial settlement between Cherlyn Schaefer and prop master Sarah Zachry was approved during a hearing Monday. Schaefer told the judge there's not a day that goes by when she doesn't think about what happened, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
In her civil complaint, Schaefer said she fought desperately in a failed attempt to save the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. She said the shock, trauma and emotional distress that followed has made it impossible for her to continue working in her field.
Prosecutors dismissed an involuntary manslaughter charge against the actor and producer last month, citing new evidence and the need for more time to investigate.
State District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood had entered a default judgment against Zachry in November after the film worker failed to file responses within court deadlines.
Zachry's current attorney, Nathan Winger, told the court Monday that her previous attorney, William Waggoner, let deadlines pass without her permission, and she intends to seek damages from him to fund her settlement with Schaefer. Waggoner disputes the claim.
Justin Rodriguez, one of several attorneys representing Schaefer, said the settlement "is a small portion of what we expect to receive in the future." The remaining defendants include Rust Movie Productions, weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed and assistant director David Halls, but not Baldwin.
Schaefer's complaint claims Zachry and Gutierrez-Reed failed to ensure there were no live rounds in Baldwin's weapon. An involuntary manslaughter charge remains pending against Gutierrez-Reed, but her attorneys have said they fully expect her to be exonerated.
Illinois trooper shot, motorist dead in exchange of gunfire - Associated Press
A New Mexico motorist was killed early Tuesday and a state trooper was wounded in an exchange of gunfire along an interstate highway in southern Illinois, police said.
Illinois State Police said a trooper stopped about 3 a.m. along Interstate 64 to assist a stranded motorist on the right shoulder of eastbound lanes. The officer encountered motorist Brandon L. Griffin, 23, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a female passenger.
After a second state trooper arrived, state police said, "an altercation occurred during which gunfire was exchanged between Griffin and a responding officer."
Griffin was pronounced dead at the scene, while a 16-year veteran trooper was shot and wounded and hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, police said.
The other trooper and the female passenger were not injured, police said.
The shooting happened near Mt. Vernon, the Jefferson County seat, about 80 miles southeast of St. Louis, closing the interstate's eastbound lanes for more than three hours.
State police said the agency's internal investigators are handling the case, and no additional details would be released. Once state police complete its investigation the findings and evidence will be submitted to the Jefferson County State's Attorney's Office for review, police said.
NRC starts special inspection of New Mexico uranium facility - Associated Press
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday began a special inspection at the Urenco USA uranium enrichment facility in southeastern New Mexico following an incident last month.
NRC officials said the April 21 incident involved the operation of a crane near a building that handles uranium hexafluoride without the required safety controls present.
They said there are concerns about safety protocols at the site and that warrants additional NRC inspection as it involves a breakdown of controls designed to prevent chemical, radiological and criticality hazards, which are the primary concern at U.S. fuel cycle facilities.
Two similar events last year at the Urenco USA facility prompted the NRC to propose a $70,000 civil penalty.
Inspectors from the NRC's Region II office in Atlanta are at the Urenco USA plant for the next days.
They plan to assess the effectiveness of previous corrective actions taken by the facility to implement safety controls during construction activities and evaluate the appropriateness of the company's overall response.
The inspection team will document their findings and conclusions in a public report that's usually issued within 45 days of the inspection's completion.
Indigenous missing person cases get researchers' attention - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
A New Mexico task force charged with addressing missing person cases involving Native Americans is teaming up with researchers in Nebraska on a data collection project that they hope will begin to close the gaps when it comes to tracking cases and their outcomes nationwide.
The goal of the federally funded effort is to better define the scope of what many experts and activists have referred to as a "silent crisis." The work began last week, said Melody Delmar, special projects coordinator with the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department.
One of the challenges for policymakers across Indian Country has been the lack of a consistent and sustainable system for reporting and tracking such cases. Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha will be using a model first developed for that state to address data collection across multiple law enforcement jurisdictions.
It was only last year that the FBI started publishing a list of Indigenous people missing in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation. That list took six months to compile by validating different databases, and Delmar said this next phase of research will build on those efforts and help to guide future policymaking.
"While we're working at the higher levels of government and at my level — policy work on the ground level — we know that people are still going missing. So we're moving full steam ahead," she said.
The U.S. Justice Department's research and evaluation arm is funding the New Mexico project with a grant worth nearly $250,000. In all, the National Institute of Justice awarded six grants totaling nearly $5 million for research that could help curb violence against women.
Indigenous families, activists and advocacy groups gathered last Friday and over the weekend to bring more attention to the disproportionate number of tribal community members who have gone missing or have been killed in North America. While past studies have shown homicide and violence rates are exponentially higher for Native Americans and Alaska Natives, the number of missing and slain Indigenous women remains unknown.
A 2022 congressional research report highlights jurisdictional overlaps among tribal, local, state and federal police forces as a top challenge, aside from the lack of data.
In New Mexico, the state Department of Public Safety became the first agency in the United States to allow reporting agencies to identify Indigenous people and their respective tribes, pueblos, or nations. That was made possible when the department modified its National Crime Information Center.
Delmar and others who are working on the issue say the next step for New Mexico will be consideration of an alert system for when Indigenous people go missing, like systems being developed in California and now Oklahoma.
"It's about identifying what other missing pieces are there," she said. "And I think this is an important part, when we get done going through the research, that will help inform what kind of effective legislation we can improve on and work on."
Nationally, the Urban Indian Health Institute distributed $1.2 million in grants last fall for groups to carry out best practices for data collection on American Indians and Alaska Natives. The institute refers to the effort as "decolonizing data," as inaccurate categorization and racial misclassification has led to undercounts when it comes to representation of social, economic and health measures.
Advocates say that has resulted in fewer resources being given to Native communities.
In New Mexico's largest judicial direct, there are no extra resources being funneled to prosecutors to work on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons, or MMIP, cases. Still, Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman said the office has dedicated two staffers to review as many cases as they can. The special unit has been able to locate five people since its creation in December 2021, he said, but there are 28 still on the list.
"This is a work in progress, and we continue to get better at it," he said. "And I think from what I've seen, the federal agencies involved are getting better at it as well."
For Denise Billy and Kayleigh Otero, their work in the district attorney's office starts after cases are reported to law enforcement. They review the files and develop profiles that include the missing person's daily routine, whom they associated with and any other details the family can provide — even the smallest of details.
"That's something that me and Denise think about the most: just really digging deep," Otero said. "It's important work and it's work that we're dedicated to doing. We don't just turn it off when we get to go home."
Las Cruces Public School board starts breakneck superintendent search - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
The Las Cruces Board of Education is looking for a new superintendent to lead the district – and plans to name a candidate by July 1.
That leaves less than two months for the search and naming a new leader, said school board President Teresa Tenorio in a phone interview.
In recent press releases and prior meetings, the board was looking to hire someone over the course of 140 days, conducted over the summer and announce a new superintendent by Aug. 15.
The board pivoted to a more condensed schedule at an April 28 meeting. JG Consulting, an Austin-based firm the board hired to conduct the search and background candidates, recommended moving faster, to get more candidates to apply.
“There’s a window of time when superintendent candidates are shopping around,” Tenorio said. “That window closed when you get closer to the end of the school year, or the end of the fiscal year.”
The search follows the recent resignation of Las Cruces schools superintendent Ralph Ramos.
Ramos, 54, headed the district for just over two years. He stepped into the interim position March 2021 after the sudden death of Karen Trujillo, who was struck by a car while walking her dogs.
The then-board set out to hire Trujillo’s replacement in just under two months, citing the need to hire a superintendent by the start of the new fiscal year.
The board hired Ramos for the position on June 1, 2021. His starting salary was $10,000 higher than Trujillo’s at $180,000.
A board member, the sole vote against Ramos, resigned days later, citing transparency issues with the process, and “bullying and misogynistic comportment,” from the former Board President Ray Jaramillo. A probe from an outside law firm reported “no findings” of management or improper conduct in their investigation.
The reasons Ramos left are unclear.
Billed as a retirement, Ramos left the school district after two meetings behind closed doors explored two grievances filed against him by employees. The name of the employees and the nature of the grievances are not public.
The first meeting was held in January for four hours behind closed doors. The Las Cruces Sun News reported the board met again just two days before Ramos issued a statement about his retirement on March 9. Ramos left the district April 7.
Board member Jaramillo also resigned March 9, reposting a letter he sent to other board members. He’s since made the Facebook letter private, but said the purchasing of daycare Alpha School for Young Children, and family health issues as reasons he stepped down.
However, in an interview with the Las Cruces Bulletin, Jaramillo said Ramos’ departure led to his own.
“If Ralph was still there, I’d still probably be there,” Jaramillo told the Bulletin. “Ralph and I made a connection. We worked hard to develop a relationship that I thought was good for the district.”
MORE PARTICIPATION, MONEY SPENT ON THIS SEARCH
The recent search holds a few key differences from recent years – the advisory committee made up of teachers, district staff, parents, students, businesses and election officials had 72 people nominated to sit on it. In the 2021 search, there were eight people nominated to the committee. A full list can be found here.
The board also hired a national educational hiring firm, Austin-based JG Consulting.
The board did not hire a consulting firm for recent superintendent searches, said Kelly Jameson, a spokesperson for Las Cruces Public Schools, who said the last time a firm was brought in may have been in 2006.
At the April 11 meeting, three board members present expressed “sticker shock” from the quotes provided by the two firms applying for the contract.
Tenorio declined to provide how much the district paid the consulting group, directing Source NM to file a public records request for that information. Source NM is waiting on that request.
JG Consulting bid $50,000 to conduct the search at neighboring Socorro Independent School District, in El Paso County. Socorro schools have approximately 48,000 students, a little more than twice the size of the Las Cruces district with 23,711 students.
In the April 28 meeting, Las Cruces schools board member Robert Wofford asked if the firm conducts interviews beyond the candidates’ own references.
“My question stems from past superintendents here, and failing to fully vet,” Wofford said.
Guerra responded that the firm makes the effort to reach out to lots of individuals to determine if there’s any impropriety “personal or professional” in candidate’s backgrounds.
“We’re batting 1000, we’ve never failed a search, we don’t intend to start now,” Guerra said.
JG Consulting held interviews with board members, breakout groups of the advisory committee, and collected responses from a parent survey to produce a report of the ideal qualities for the next superintendent. This included someone who preferably is bilingual in Spanish and English, has experience in similar districts, and has experience as a teacher.
Tenorio offered her perspective, that the most important qualities were the ability to communicate, be transparent, and allow the parents, businesses and more the chance to engage with schools.
“Being a superintendent is a very hard job,” Tenorio told Source NM, “I want to be able to support a superintendent who puts kids first.”
See the full job description at SourceNM.com.