Bexar County commissioners say no to nuclear waste shipments

February 22, 2017

By Brendan Gibbons
San Antonio Express News

Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert
Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Photo: Marvin Pfeiffer /San Antonio Express-News / Express-News 2016

On Tuesday, Bexar County became the first county in Texas to officially oppose having high-level nuclear waste pass through the county on its way to a West Texas waste site.

The commissioners unanimously approved a resolution opposing shipments of nuclear fuel rods from more than 62 sites across the U.S., most of them operating or closed reactors used to produce power.

If the waste storage site in Andrews County is approved, the fuel rods could start being shipped to the Waste Control Specialists facility on the Texas-New Mexico line starting in 2021.

Despite the resolution, Bexar County commissioners have no say over the waste site, which is under review by the the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Last year, WCS applied for an NRC license to accept 5,000 tons of the waste, which would likely be transported in steel canisters via rail. WCS officials have said they eventually hope to accept up to 40,000 tons over 40 years

That would likely require shipping 3,000 canisters of waste, NRC official James Park said at a public meeting in Andrews County last week. Each canister is heavy enough to require its own train car, with three to five cars per train, according to NRC and WCS officials.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert, who sponsored the resolution, cited the vulnerability to terrorist attack, train derailments and lack of financial support for rail in Texas all as reasons to say no.

"With our history of derailments and lack of infrastructure support, it’s not ready for prime time," he said. "It’s just too risky."

Calvert said his office has received 84 constituent emails opposing waste shipments, more than on any other issue since he took office in January 2015.

After fuel rods become too thermally cool to efficiently generate electricity in a nuclear reactor, they remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. A freshly spent fuel rod emits enough radiation to kill a person directly exposed to it without shielding, according to the NRC.

"This is the really hot stuff," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, an activist who recently retired from running Public Citizen’s Austin office and has long been involved with nuclear issues in Texas. "We don’t think you ought to consent to having this waste come through Bexar County," he said.

Some expert reviews have found the cansiters can withstand drops, punctures, explosions and submersion, though a 2006 report by the National Research Council states they are vulnerable to "very long duration, fully engulfing fires."

Smith urged commissioners to formally intervene in the NRC’s review of the waste site application, which he argued would give Bexar County "a seat at the table."

"We haven’t decided on that," Judge Nelson Wolff said after the meeting. "Our primary concern is the transportation coming through the city."

Precinct 2 Commissioner Paul Elizondo said they would have to confer with the District Attorney’s office to see if the county has standing to intervene.

The deadline for formally intervening is March 31. The NRC will accept public comments on WCS’ application until March 13. The public can post comments on its website,, under the "Public Meetings and Involvement" section.

The NRC will also hold an online public meeting about WCS from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday to be webcast at, Twitter: @bgibbs

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