May 6, 2020

TRAVIS BUBENIK
Courthouse News Service

A view of an existing site in West Texas where a company wants to store toxic waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. (Photo courtesy of Waste Control Specialists)

(CN) — A federal review of a plan to move highly radioactive nuclear waste to rural West Texas from sites across the U.S. has concluded that regulators should approve the plan because it would not lead to significant environmental problems.

The nearly 500-page draft report released Monday is a significant milestone that follows years of ups and downs on the proposal, which would involve shipping thousands of tons of spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants to a remote facility on the West Texas-New Mexico border.

A company called Interim Storage Partners wants to eventually bring about half of the nation’s growing, problematic stockpile of high-level nuclear waste to an existing toxic waste site in rural Andrews County, Texas. Under the proposal, the waste would likely sit there for decades until the government decides on a more permanent way to dispose of it.

The company is a joint venture of the site’s current operator, Waste Control Specialists, and the American arm of global nuclear power firm Orano.

Environmental groups have long opposed the plan, arguing in part that it would threaten cities and towns across the U.S. as the waste moves by rail to the Texas site.

In recent months, the groups have hit dead ends in their attempts to fight the project in regulatory proceedings, with some advocates complaining that they felt unjustly pushed out of the debate.

In the draft report released Monday, staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the full commission should approve an initial 40-year license for the company to bring about 5,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to West Texas. If granted, the license could later be expanded to allow up to 40,000 metric tons.

The report concluded the plan would only cause small or moderate impacts to things like air and water quality, historic and cultural resources and public health, according to a 20-page summary.


A map of where nuclear waste would be sent to in Texas. (Image via Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
"After considering the environmental impacts of the proposed action, the NRC staff’s preliminary recommendation is issuance of an NRC license," the commission said in a statement announcing the report.

Karen Hadden, who leads the environmental advocacy group SEED Coalition and has fought the proposal for years, described the commission’s review as "woefully inadequate."

"The NRC does not seem to be taking health and safety and security concerns seriously," she said in an interview. "They’re just trying to ram this project though and it’s putting us at risk. There could be accidents, there could be leaks, there could be hijacking of radioactive material."

Hadden said her group continues to formally appeal its rejection from the regulatory proceedings. She said the group will push the commission to hold public meetings in cities like Dallas and San Antonio, where the waste could travel through, in addition to the several meetings the commission said it will hold in and around Andrews County.

While Monday’s report is a step forward for the long-simmering West Texas proposal, it’s still far from a done deal.

Regulators plan to take public comments on the draft environmental report, for a longer-than-usual period of time because of the coronavirus pandemic, and to hold an online webinar in addition to the public meetings. After that, the commission will work on a finalized version of the report and a parallel safety review of the plan that will be released in the spring of 2021. A final decision on the plan would follow.

Meanwhile, the same regulators are also considering a rival plan that would bring the nuclear waste to a different site in the same general area, but instead just across the Texas border in southeastern New Mexico.

Like with the Texas plan, a subset of the NRC recently rejected environmental groups’ protests to the New Mexico plan, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Politics could ultimately play into the fate of the nuclear waste debate as well, as it has before.

In February, President Donald Trump seemed to backtrack on his own administration’s attempted revival of a plan to dump the nation’s nuclear waste at a site called Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Obama administration had previously abandoned the plan after years of pushback from Nevada residents and elected officials.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has in the past voiced displeasure at the idea of expanding the types of nuclear waste that are stored at the Andrews County site, saying he doesn’t want Texas to become “the radioactive waste dumping ground of America.”

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report released Monday.

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