Dallas County officials to weigh in on Texas radioactive dump site proposal

April 3, 2017

Jeff Mosier, Environmental Writer
Dallas Morning News

Andrews County is a five-hour drive to the west, but a proposed project there is worrying some Dallas County officials.

Waste Control Specialists has an application pending to store tons of used fuel from nuclear power plants in sparsely populated West Texas. That radioactive waste could potentially pass through Texas’ major cities — including ones in the Dallas area — by train.

Dallas County commissioners are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution opposing any effort to transport "high level" radioactive waste through this area.

"The public health of Dallas County residents must be protected. Just because the railroad goes through the county does not mean that the population of a large urban area should be put in peril," Commissioner Theresa Daniel said in a written statement.

Daniel asked that the resolution be placed on the agenda. The proposed waste site would hold spent fuel from nuclear power plants, where the waste is now housed as it awaits a long-term dump site.

County Commissioner Theresa Daniel plans to introduce a resolution Tuesday opposing the transportation of nuclear waste through Dallas County. (Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News Staff Photographer)

Bexar County commissioners have already expressed their opposition, and San Antonio city officials are considering weighing in on the issue.

Midland County officials are also considering a resolution.

"The transportation of spent nuclear fuel takes place safely every day, of every week, of every year in the United States," said Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald. "There’s never been a single accident that resulted in the release of any radioactive material of any kind."

He said a recent Department of Energy report confirmed that.

The first phase of Waste Control’s plan would take spent fuel from plants that had been closed and decommissioned, McDonald said.

The Department of Energy, now led by former Gov. Rick Perry, has not yet created a transportation plan for the Waste Control proposal. But some possible routes lead through heavily populated areas.

The Waste Control plan calls for the waste to arrive by rail. Trucks would only be used if the plant didn’t have direct access to a rail line.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he’s not taking a stance on the Waste Control application and acknowledged that the nuclear "waste has to go somewhere."

"The metroplex has 7 million people, and I am responsible for the safety of 2.6 million here in Dallas County," he said. "We simply don’t want radioactive waste to come through our area. There are ways to route those trains around."

Andrews County, where the dump would be located, is one of the least populated areas in Texas. It had about 18,000 residents in 2015.

Environmental activists are rounding up support from local governments in an effort to halt the proposal to store the waste along the Texas border with New Mexico. Waste Control, a firm started by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, has submitted its application but this is likely to be a long process.

One other company, Holtec International, submitted an application last month. That site is in a county adjacent to Andrews, just across the New Mexico border.

McDonald called these efforts by environmental groups "premature" and "publicity stunts." He said there would be further public hearings. And local government along the transportation routes would have input.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, outgoing director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said the transportation plan will be finalized after the permit is issued. He said this is the time for local governments and individuals to have their say.

Critics — including Public Citizen and the Sustainable and Economic Development Coalition — have pointed to many reasons why they oppose the plan. They are concerned the site could taint the Ogallala aquifer or that it’s not sufficiently secure.

On Monday, Public Citizen pointed to the danger of a terrorist attack or accident while a train and its waste pass through populated areas.

"… Current nuclear waste transport casks have not been subjected to full-scale testing," Smith said in a written statement. "For example, the casks are only required to withstand an engulfing fire at 1475 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, while materials that share the railways burn at much hotter temperatures, like diesel, which burns at 1800º F and for longer than 30 minutes."

Critics also worry the Andrews County facility could turn into a permanent — rather than temporary — storage site.

The federal government previously decided to permanently house its high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada. After years of political fights and questions about its suitability, the project was essentially shelved during President Barack Obama’s administration.

But there are efforts by President Donald Drumpf’s administration to revive the Yucca Mountain project. Drumpf’s 2018 budget included $120 million for repository construction, which is opposed by Nevada politicians. And Perry made a surprise visit to the site Monday.

There’s also pressure from the state of Texas in support of the project. Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit against Perry, as energy secretary, over Yucca Mountain. The litigation demands that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission take an official vote on the project.

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