Texas radioactive waste disposal company seeking break from state fees and surcharges

At issue is whether Texas could become the disposal site for high-level radioactive waste.
April 8, 2021
By John C. Moritz, USA TODAY NETWORK

Depending on who is interpreting it, legislation moving closer to a vote in the Texas House and Senate would either shut the door to the state ever becoming home to high-level radioactive waste or carve a path to bring it in.

Two separate but similar bills — one in the House and the other in the Senate — seek to lower state fees and surcharges imposed on Waste Control Specialists that operates a storage and disposal site in Andrews County, near the border with New Mexico.

Waste Control Specialists, which stores low-level radioactive waste in a remote area of West Texas, is seeking tax breaks from the state that would total about $1.4 million a year.

Waste Control Specialists, which stores low-level radioactive waste in a remote area of West Texas, is seeking tax breaks from the state that would total about $1.4 million a year.

The site houses low-level radioactive waste from facilities such as nuclear power plants, sundry industries and from health care facilities that use x-ray and radiation therapy for care of their patients.

Unlikely bedfellows

Officials from Waste Control Specialists say they need the financial breaks that would cost the state about $1.4 million a year to remain competitive. But environmental groups opposing both bills argue that the breaks would leave Texas short of money in the event the company should go belly up, and taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for managing the site for centuries into the future.

The environmentalists have an unlikely ally in one of Andrews County’s oldest traditional energy companies and its largest private landowner, Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd.

The bills’ authors, Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, and Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, say they contain safeguards to prohibit high-level radioactive waste from ever being shipped to Andrews County for disposal.

"e;A person, including the compact waste disposal facility license holder, may not dispose of or store high-level radioactive waste or spent nuclear fuel in this state,"e; a section in both bills reads.

A committee has approved House Bill 2692, and it is awaiting placement on the full House calendar. A Senate committee is weighing Senate Bill 1046.

Drilling operations at risk?

Several people testifying during House and Senate committee meetings on behalf of environmental groups said the definition of “person” could be subject to wide interpretation. So did Tommy Taylor, an executive with Faskin Oil and Ranch.

And if high-level radioactive waste should somehow find its way to Andrews County, which is part of the oil-rich Permian Basin that stretches from Texas to New Mexico, Taylor said it could jeopardize the safety of drilling operations and decimate the fossil fuel industry and the Texas economy.

This (the oil and gas industry) is a significant source of income for Texas and (vital for) the security of our nation,” Taylor said.

What worries the legislation’s opponents is that Waste Control Specialists has an application pending before the federal Nuclear Regulatory Committee to build and operate a high-level waste facility in Andrews County. A federal permit would likely trump a state ban on such waste.

Former state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat and now part of the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness, said Waste Control Specialists cannot argue on one hand that its financial position is so precarious that it needs a break on state fees and on the other hand tell the Nuclear Regulatory Committee it has the means to build a state-of-the-art waste disposal site in West Texas.

“These guys perpetually cry wolf and plead poverty,” Burnam said. “This company is not at risk of going under.”

But Waste Control Specialists President David Carlson told the Senate Natural Resources Committee that a company in Nevada with lower operating costs is well-positioned to outcompete his firm for low-level waste disposal. He said the Andrews County site is also very expensive to operate.

“This is the most protected low-level radioactive waste site that’s ever been built,” Carlson said.

High-level waste

Among opponents of Waste Control Specialists’ permit application before the Nuclear Regulatory Committee is Gov. Greg Abbott, who said it would leave Texas vulnerable.

“According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the cargo currently shipped on rail lines through the Permian Basin consists primarily of “oilfield commodities such as drilling mud, hydrochloric acid, fracking sand, pipe, and petroleum products, including crude oil, as well as iron and steel scrap,” Abbott said in a Nov. 3 letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Committee.

“There are also significant agricultural commodities. In the event of a rail accident or derailment, even absent a radiological release, the resources and logistics required to address such an accident would severely disrupt the transportation of oilfield and agricultural commodities, to the detriment of the entire country.”

Asked by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, if Waste Control Specialists would consider withdrawing its federal application to satisfy bipartisan concerns, Carlson replied, “No, ma’am.”

Supporters of the legislation, including Republican Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, noted that Texas is obligated by state and federal law to safely dispose of low-level radioactive waste and that Andrews County is the chosen site.

Nearly every community with a hospital or a dentist office, not to mention those with defense industry and other plants, contribute to that waste stream, they said.

Finally, Andrews County officials testified that a profitable Waste Control Specialists is vital to the remote region’s economic health. Local taxes and fees pay for parks, ambulances and recreational projects countywide, said Morse Haynes of the Andrews Economic Development corporation.

“They’re great corporate citizens,” Haynes said.

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This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Nuclear waste project in southeast New Mexico delayed as feds demand answers

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

April 2, 2021

A project to store high-level nuclear waste in southeast New Mexico was delayed as the federal government sought more answers from the company proposing to build and operate the facility as to its potential risk to human life.

Holtec International proposed to build the consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) to temporarily hold spent nuclear fuel rods from generator sites across the country as a permanent repository was developed.

Permanent, offsite disposal for high-level waste does not exist in the U.S. after such a project at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was blocked by state lawmakers.

Holtect’s project is amidst a federal licensing process overseen by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) which released an environmental analysis last year that reported minimal impact was expected from the construction and operation of the CISF.

The initial license application was to store 8,680 metric tons (MT) of spent nuclear fuel under a 40-year term, and the company intended to file additional applications for up to 20 phases for a total of up to 100,000 MT of waste and 120 years of operation.

Following the environmental review, the NRC embarked on a review of the proposed facility’s safety and security and made numerous requests for additional information (RAIs) to Holtec in September 2020.

But in a March 25 letter to Holtec, the NRC informed the company that its responses to the RAIs submitted in October and November 2020 and again in January were inadequate and more requests were needed.

This would delay the project, the letter read, past the May 2021 deadline for completing the safety review.

NRC staff found Holtec’s responses related to soil impacts, flooding, aircraft crash hazards, some building designs and analyses of the site’s shielding, thermal and aging management were "unanswered or incomplete," the letter read.

"However, the schedule assumed that Holtec would provide timely and high-quality responses to all outstanding requests for additional information (RAIs) by November 2020, and that no follow-up RAIs would be necessary. If additional RAIs were necessary, the staff would revise its schedule accordingly," the letter read.

"Accordingly, the staff will not be able to complete its safety and security review and publish a final (safety evaluation report) in May 2021."

A second set of RAIs was planned to be sent to Holtec in the next month, read the letter, repeating the requests, providing details on the information still needed and setting a two-week deadline for responses.

The schedule for the final report would not be updated by the NRC, until Holtec responds to the inquiry.

In the letter, the NRC said it already held a clarification call with Holtec staff on the RAIs and intended to hold more meetings to ensure the agency’s questions are properly addressed.

"We expect to schedule additional calls over the next few weeks to discuss the remaining items," the letter read.

"In order to ensure your responses to the staff’s second RAI are complete and adequately resolve the remaining issues, the staff strongly recommends Holtec staff meet with NRC to discuss the proposed answers prior to their submission."

Holtec Director of Government Affairs Joe Delmar said the company planned to work closely with the federal government in answering the needed questions and displaying the safety of the facility and its nuclear waste storage system.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process is rigorous, thorough and transparent to ensure the protection of public health and safety and the protection of the environment," Delmar said.

"Holtec remains committed to completing the NRC’s licensing process for HI-STORE CISF and remains equally committed to providing the country a supremely safe, secure, retrievable and centralized facility for storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis."

New Mexico State leaders voiced strong concerns for the project, opposing Holtec’s proposal for its potential to impact existing industries in southeast New Mexico such as oil and gas and agriculture.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the project "economic malpractice" while State Attorney General Hector Balderas filed a lawsuit against the NRC to block the facility from being licensed.

Balderas argued federal law precluded the federal government from taking ownership of the waste while in transport to the Holtec site and thus project was illegal.

Last year, the NRC rejected multiple similar contentions from environmental and watchdog groups, arguing they were not admissible or the groups lacked standing to intervene in the licensing process as members did not reside within 50 miles of the facility.

The NRC dissented with arguments from the the Sierra Club, Beyond Nuclear and Fasken Land and Minerals that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act barred the U.S. Department of Energy from taking ownership of the waste.

Those groups displayed standing under the proximity standard.

The application, per the NRC’s decision, suggested Congress could change the federal law or nuclear plant owners could take ownership and be Holtec’s customers.

"The Board rejected the argument that the ‘mere mention of DOE renders Holtec’s license application unlawful.’ The Board observed that Holtec ‘is committed to going forward with the project’ by contracting directly with the plant owners," the decision read.

"The Board held that whether that option is ‘commercially viable’ was not an issue before the Board."

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Texas governor opposes interim storage site

Jeremy Dillon, E&E News reporter
Energy Wire

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) yesterday announced his opposition to a pair of proposed interim nuclear storage sites in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. World Travel & Tourism Council/Wikimedia Commons

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott added his name yesterday to the list of state leaders opposed to the storage of nuclear waste in their state.

His opposition to a pair of proposed interim storage sites in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico currently undergoing Nuclear Regulatory Commission review likely makes the prospects of those private projects moving forward untenable.

New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham voiced similar concerns to both sites last year. She echoed those concerns in August (Greenwire, Aug. 10).

In a letter to President Trump yesterday, Abbott argued that the storage site’s location in the Permian Basin — one of the world’s most prolific oil plays — could have the potential to disrupt oil and natural gas production operations.

"A stable oil and gas industry is essential to the economy, and crucial to the security of our great nation," Abbott said. "Allowing the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high level nuclear waste at sites near the largest producing oilfield in the world will compromise the safety of the region."

The planned West Texas site from Interim Storage Partners would be next to an existing Waste Control Specialists LLC low-level nuclear waste disposal facility in Andrews, Texas.

Interim Storage Partners was not immediately available for comment.

The plan — should it receive NRC approval — would put the 5,000 tons of nuclear waste on a concrete pad in dry-cask storage containers. Subsequent additions could boost the amount to 40,000 tons. In a draft environmental impact statement, the NRC staff found the proposal would not have significant impacts on the environment (E&E News PM, May 5).

That draft EIS is in an extended public comment period as a result of the pandemic.

More than 80,000 metric tons of nuclear waste currently sits at more than 120 sites across the country without any tenable strategy from the federal government on how to address it.

That waste had originally been pegged for disposal in the controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations abandoned those efforts over heavy state opposition to the facility going forward. Trump in a February tweet called for "innovative solutions" to the nation’s nuclear waste backlog, and the Department of Energy said it would pursue an interim storage strategy.

New Mexico’s political leaders have expressed concern that any interim storage site could turn into a de facto long-term repository, given the limited number of other disposal strategies to have emerged.

Abbott echoed those concerns in his letter to the White House.

"The proposed sites in Texas and New Mexico do not provide the deep geologic isolation required for permanent storage in order to minimize the risks of accidents, terrorism, or sabotage, which could disrupt the country’s energy supply with catastrophic effects on the American economy," he said.

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.

Feds Give Thumbs-Up to West Texas Nuclear Waste Plan

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.

Copyright © 2020 courthousenews.com

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Federal officials recommend storage of nuclear waste in West Texas

May 07, 2020

By Jakob Brandenburg
KOSA/CBS7

WEST TEXAS — The federal government has taken another step toward storing the nation’s nuclear waste in West Texas.

This week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report recommending the approval for radioactive waste to be transported across Texas, and stored in Andrews County.

The existing facility near the Texas-New Mexico Border is operated by Waste Control Specialists, and a joint venture called Interim Storage Partners hopes to bring the nation’s high-level nuclear waste to the facility.

"The employees of WCS live here and are part of this community," Elicia Sanchez with Interim Storage Partners said. "We are very confident in the safety of our facility, and very excited about the opportunity that it will bring the community of Andrews."

If approved, the company would receive a 40-year license to bring about 5000 metric tons of nuclear waste to West Texas.

And while the company and its website swear by the safety of the storage process, Andrews County residents are still worried.

"Very dangerous," Elizabeth Padilla with the group ‘Save Andrews County’ said. "We’re talking about the nation’s spent fuel from nuclear reactors across the country. The waste that nobody wants. The high radioactive waste."

Those against the storage of waste say that people in Andrews aren’t the only ones who should be concerned.

To get to the facility, the nuclear waste must travel by truck or train through Texas cities

"Midland in particular it would definitely come right through the downtown area," Karen Hadden with SEED Coalition said. "This material has to be isolated from living things for a million years, and there is no way that a facility in Texas, the one that’s being looked at, could do that."

The public is now allowed to comment on the draft and attend meetings held by the NRC.

The final environmental impact statement is scheduled to be released in May of 2021.

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.