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Radioactive waste storage bill derailed in the Texas House on a technicality

May 5, 2021

Some saw the legislation as a "Trojan horse" that would bring high-level radioactive waste to Texas. But the bill’s author disputed that argument.

John C. Moritz
Corpus Christi Caller Times

AUSTIN — Contentious legislation that would have given financial breaks to the company that operates the storage site for low-level radioactive waste in remote West Texas was derailed Wednesday on a procedural technicality in the state House.

The maneuver to knock down House Bill 2692 short-circuited what had been expected to be a freewheeling floor debate over whether the bill would have provided a backdoor to bringing the most dangerous waste from decommissioned nuclear power plants to Texas.

Federal regulators are reviewing plans to sell retiring nuclear reactors to nuclear waste management company for quicker decommissioning. Questions have been raised about whether the companies have the experience and funds to do the job.

The legislation’s author, state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican who represents the site in Andrews County, insisted it would expressly ban such waste from Texas. And he said he was "mystified" that anyone would interpret it otherwise.

"We want to make sure safety is a top priority … not only at the facility but (while waste is) transported to the facility," Landgraf said before the bill was scuttled.

The legislation was designed to grant Waste Control Specialists, the company that operates the Andrews County site, a break on surcharges and fees levied by the state on the revenue it takes in to handle the waste. The company said it needs the breaks to remain competitive in the face of out-of-state competition.

But even before the measure was brought to the House floor, it was the subject of intense lobbying on behalf of the company and by forces seeking to defeat it.

In something of an odd alliance, several environmental groups opposed to reducing the surcharges and fees, much of which goes into a fund to ensure that the dumpsite will be safely maintained in perpetuity, were joined by oil and gas interests active in drilling in the energy-rich Permian Basin, which includes Andrews County.

Fasken Oil and Ranch, a family-owned company that is one of the largest private landowners in Andrews County, mounted an intensive campaign through a nonprofit entity called "Not Our Trash" that ran TV ads in several Texas markets against the bill.

In a news release announcing the ad campaign, the group called Waste Control Specialists a private waste company that "is lobbying to unravel good law" that has been on the books for more than a decade in the effort to reduce its fees and surcharges.

Texas Capitol
Texas Capitol Dome: Austin Price/The Texas Tribune

"By gutting important safety regulations and dumping radioactive waste in an open pit, they are turning a blind eye to that contaminated material potentially being carried by the wind onto our grazing lands, our ranches and farmlands, and our communities," said Fasken executive
Tommy Taylor, who also is president of the nonprofit.

Dave Carlson, the chief operating officer for Waste Control Specialists, said in a statement to the USA TODAY Network that such claims were misrepresenting what the legislation would do.

"This bill does not make any changes to the safety of the facility, the most robust low-level waste facility ever constructed," Carlson said. "The existing statute puts the Texas facility at an overwhelming competitive disadvantage to the primary competitor. You’d be hard pressed to find another company who pays 31% of its revenue in taxes in this state or in any state."

Karen Hadden director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, called the bill "a nuclear Trojan Horse."

“When you open it up you find that the ban on high level nuclear waste is written deceptively and won’t work," she said. "It will double the amount of permitted waste, weaken state regulations and cheat the state of the money it will need to clean up the mess.”

The Andrews County site does handle low-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants and other facilities. But Landgraf, when he began explaining the legislation to House members, also noted that it also receives radioactive materials from x-rays used in medical and dental offices from virtually every community in Texas along with materials used in manufacturing and even from oil and gas drilling.

Still, he acknowledged the concerns of the bill’s opponents and promised to revise some of its provisions on the fly in the effort to alleviate them.

But state Rep. Tom Craddick, the House’s longest serving member who represents Midland in the heart of the Permian Basin, made reference to Waste Control Specialists’ 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, Craddick told Landgraf just before he pointed out the procedural flaw that derailed the bill. In short, the official bill analysis that explains the details of legislation to House members was found to be misleading and missing key details. That meant House rules prevented members from debating it it and taking a vote.

It was not immediately clear whether the House bill could be revived and perhaps considered in the final four weeks of the 2021 legislative session. A similar measure is pending in the Senate, but it has been removed from the chamber’s agenda, a signal that it lacks the votes needed to be considered for debate.

Carlson, after the bill was derailed in the House, said his company intends to press forward on the matter.

"Our interests and the state’s interests are aligned and we are committed to working closely with the our community, our regulators and the state of Texas to ensure the facility remains viable, safe and an asset to the state’s economy," he said.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

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 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.

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.

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.

NorthStar: Vermont Yankee demolition ahead of schedule

October 18, 2019

By Susan Smallheer
Brattleboro Reformer

VERNON — Nine months into the demolition of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, NorthStar CEO Scott State says the project is already about six months ahead of schedule. He said the company has been able to make progress by "doing things differently."

State said the project was divided up into three, two-year segments, and that the company will complete the project ahead of the 2030 deadline easily and on budget.

NorthStar’s partner for the first segment of the project, Orano USA, is already cutting up the nuclear reactor’s internals and getting them ready for shipment to another partner’s waste site in western Texas.

State said he originally expected the job would be completed by 2026.

"I think we’ll be done well before 2026," he said Thursday during a tour of the Vernon site with reporters, giving an update of the $500-plus million project. "We are months ahead of schedule."

State said despite the pace, the company had recently reached 220,000 man hours on the site with no ‘lost-time accidents,’ which he said is a tribute to the company’s planning and safety culture.

"These are big logistical jobs," he said.

State said NorthStar was in negotiations with the town of Vernon about leaving untouched some buildings and components, as long as they pass a radiological survey. NorthStar’s administrative building, which sits outside the security fence surrounding the plant and the de-construction zone, is one asset the town is interested in, State said.

He said he hopes to transfer some of the "assets" to Vernon even before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission releases the entire site from federal oversight.

"This is the community’s asset," said State. "We’re not developers."

The plant’s intake structure on the Connecticut River is another item the town is interested in, said David Pearson, NorthStar’s vice president.

COOLING TOWERS

Vermont Yankee’s iconic dual bank of cooling towers are now gone, leaving a large field free of tons of debris, but still sporting a 250,000 gallon hole that was an emergency reservoir for the plant.

"We’ll fill it in," said Corey Daniels, a longtime employee at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, as he and others climbed up a now-vacant security tower installed in the hyper security days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and got a good view of the ongoing demolition and clean up of the 130-acre site.

In all, the demolition is expected to take at least six years, and possibly longer, and cost upwards of $500 million.

By comparison, Entergy Nuclear, which had owned Vermont Yankee since 2002, had estimated it would cost more than double that amount – $1.2 billion – and that included waiting 50 years or so to let the plant’s trust fund grow, and allow radioactivity to decay.

While nothing was under active demolition like the cooling tower project, which was completed in July, workers were busy moving large concrete and steel casks that would hold cut-up components of the plant’s reactor core – some of the most radioactive material, aside from the plant’s fuel.

The vast majority of the demolition will be shipped off site by rail. NorthStar rebuilt the rail line that served Vermont Yankee back when it was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, to carry heavy loads. The radioactive materials are labeled and put into either special shielded boxes and filled with concrete, or inserted into heavy-duty canisters for the trip to western Texas.

According to Daniels, shipping by rail is much more efficient and much cheaper than trucking.

On Thursday, workers were preparing one of the 17 large boxes that would hold the pieces of the reactor vessel internals.

WHERE WILL THE WASTE GO?

At Yankee, it’s all about nuclear waste and where it will go.

The transfer of the nuclear fuel from the plant’s spent fuel pool into concrete and steel canisters was completed a year ago, shortly before NorthStar bought Vermont Yankee from Entergy Nuclear Corp., said State.

There are 58 of the giant canisters on the north end of the Yankee site, behind barbed wire and barricades – and guards. It will remain there for years, until the federal government acts to create either permanent storage for the dangerous, highly radioactive fuel (hence the security), or an interim storage site.

State said Waste Control Specialists, which he described as a partner of NorthStar’s, runs a low-level radioactive waste site in western Texas and has proposed building an interim storage site, a plan that is pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Holtec International, a competitor of Waste Control Specialists and the builder of the storage casks being used at Yankee, has a competing application for a nearby site in southeastern New Mexico.

State, who lives in Arizona during the winter, makes a point of coming to Vermont Yankee at least once a month to check on progress.

He said he expects the NRC to make a decision on the proposed consolidated, interim storage in about three years, and he said because the WCS site is owned by a NorthStar affiliate, Yankee’s high-level radioactive waste could be shipped quickly, rather than following a federal requirement of oldest-waste first.

NorthStar is hoping that the Vermont Yankee project brings it other nuclear demolition projects, as by State’s calculation there will be another 10 nuclear reactors shutting down in the next five years. NorthStar recently signed an agreement to demolish Duke Energy’s Crystal River reactor in Florida. That project is awaiting NRC approval, he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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.