The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of the planned facility opens a new front in a decades-long battle to find a home for the country’s nuclear waste
A private company has won federal approval to build an expansive nuclear waste site in Texas, even as residents, state lawmakers, environmentalists and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) rail against it.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Monday issued a license for Andrews, Tex.-based Interim Storage Partners to store as much as 5,000 metric tons of radioactive waste. It’s one of two proposed storage sites — the other is in southeastern New Mexico — that has been under agency review for several years.
The approval opens a new front in a decades-long battle to find a home for 85,000 tons of nuclear waste accumulating at dozens of nuclear power plants across the country. Fears about the dangers of nuclear material, which scientists say remains hazardous to humans for many years, have stifled plans to build repositories, including a proposed waste dump in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain that was shelved by President Barack Obama.
Such concerns are fueling the opposition in Texas, where environmental activists have forged a rare alliance with oil interests and powerful state Republicans to prevent the site from moving forward. They worry that transporting and storing “high-level” nuclear waste, including contaminated fuel rods, exposes the state to the threat of a radiological incident or potential for groundwater contamination.
“Our concern is that the waste will sit there, the cement around it will crack, leaks will develop, and radioactive contamination will result,” said Karen Hadden, the executive director of the SEED Coalition, an Austin-based advocacy group.
In a direct challenge to federal regulators, Abbott signed legislation last week preventing federally approved waste facilities from obtaining local construction and wastewater permits. The governor has framed the license as an unwelcome incursion by the Biden administration, which he accused of “trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste” in Texas oil fields.
A site in West Texas now has a federal license to store spent nuclear fuel, setting up a potential showdown with state leaders who oppose the prospect of attracting high-level radioactive waste from across the country.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the license for Interim Storage Partners LLC to build and operate an interim storage facility in Andrews County, Texas, on Monday — just days after Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill seeking to restrict nuclear waste storage in the state.
Yesterday, Abbott tried to use the new license in the Permian Basin oil patch to hammer President Biden, though an application for the site was filed in 2016, and the Trump administration didn’t kill the project.
“The Biden Admin. is trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste in west Texas oil fields,” Abbott said on Twitter. “I just signed a law to stop it. Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”
David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, declined to comment on the governor’s criticism but said in a statement this week that the “licensing decision was made according to the applicable federal statutes and regulations after thorough, multi-year technical and environmental reviews.”
The drama is being watched by the electricity sector, as nuclear power plants continue to store spent fuel on-site without a permanent U.S. repository. Yucca Mountain in Nevada has failed to garner enough sustained support to be an option (E&E Daily, July 22). In the meantime, backers of the Interim Storage Partners, or ISP, site in West Texas and a separate project in eastern New Mexico from Holtec International have pursued interim storage proposals that could last for decades.
Protestors to Nuclear Regulator Commission: Keep Nuke Waste out of Texas
Arlington, Texas – Protesters gathered outside of the Regional Headquarters of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Arlington, Texas today to oppose the agency’s expected approval of a license to store dangerous nuclear reactor waste in West Texas.
Overwhelming opposition to the plan has been demonstrated over and over again, most recently with the passage of HB 7 unanimously in the Texas Senate and by a 119-3 vote in the House. Such a strong bipartisan vote is rare these days in Texas. The Governor signed the bill on September 9 and it went into effect immediately.
“The NRC should listen to the voices of our governor, legislators and millions of Texans and halt licensing of a facility that would put our health and safety at risk. Strong bipartisan votes are a clear message from the Texas Legislature to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When it comes to importing deadly radioactive waste to Texas: We Don’t Want It!,” said SEED Coalition Director Karen Hadden. “We will keep fighting even if the license is issued. We have legal challenges in the courts and will continue organizing. We hope the Texas Attorney General fights to protect us as well.”
“The U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission is likely to issue a license today to store up to 40,000 metric tons of the nation’s most dangerous nuclear reactor waste in Andrews County, Texas. With the passage of HB 7, the state can deny the permits necessary to dump new waste at the site. We hope the feds have heard the message: We don’t want it!” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, former director of Public Citizen’s Texas Office.
“The recent bill at the Texas Legislature will help support our legal case opposing licensing for high-level radioactive waste storage, which is now at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. SEED Coalition, Beyond Nuclear and a coalition of oil and gas industries led by Fasken Oil and Ranch also have cases on appeal.
Opposition to the nation’s high-level waste coming to Texas for storage has been expressed in a recent resolution by Andrews County, which could host the facility if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses a facility.
Five other counties and three cities passed similar resolutions, representing 5.4 million Texans. School districts, the Midland Chamber of Commerce and oil and gas companies have joined environmental and faith-based groups in opposing the dangerous plan. Governor Abbott has written strong letters to the NRC and a bipartisan group of Congressional Representatives spoke out as well. Letters and a recent press release are online at www.NoNuclearWaste.org. The enrolled version of HB 7 is online here.
“Licensing of the proposed high-level radioactive waste storage facility does not mean it will get built. We will continue to fight for protection of the health, safety, environment and economy of Texas,” said former State Representative Lon Burnam.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to release a Safety Analysis and final version of the Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed nuclear waste site in Andrews County by the end of this month, according to activism group Beyond Nuclear.
Kevin Kamps with Beyond Nuclear told the Reporter-Telegram the NRC has told the group those reports will be released in July. After those reports are made public, the NRC will decide whether to approve Waste Control Specialists’ application to store high-level nuclear waste.
Kamps said the NRC will likely make a decision on that application in mid-September.
“Somewhere in there, hopefully sooner rather than later, our side will get its day in federal court on all our appeals,” he said in an email.
Beyond Nuclear, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club, Fasken Oil and a coalition of oil royalty owners have filed suit against the NRC in the hopes of preventing the Andrews site and other proposed sites; appeals of those cases are in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit, according to Kamps.
Numerous local leaders have spoken out against the proposed Andrews site, including representatives from Fasken Oil and Ranch and the Midland County Commissioners’ Court. Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Rep. August Pfluger have also vocalized opposition to storing high-level waste in Andrews.
Andrews County Commissioners came out against the project as well, voting on July 15 to sign a resolution stating their opposition to the storage of high-level nuclear waste in the county. The commissioners faced pressure from residents during two packed Commissioners’ Court meetings.
Andrews County Judge Charlie Falcon noted during the July 15 meeting that the resolution would not necessarily affect the NRC’s decision.
WCS, in partnership with Interim Storage Partners, filed an application in 2016 to store high-level nuclear waste in Andrews County for 40 years before the waste would be moved to a permanent repository.
The NRC released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in May of 2020 regarding the application to open a high-level waste site. In that report, NRC staff recommended approval of the application, stating that the impact of constructing and operating a waste site at the proposed location was found to be minimal.
Caitlin Randle is a general news reporter for the Midland Reporter-Telegram.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.