US Regulators Approve Texas Nuclear Dump Despite Opposition

By Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
September 16, 2021 Updated: September 16, 2021

By Ari Natter
From Bloomberg News

Texas officials vowed to fight a federal regulator’s decision to approve plans to allow thousands of tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste to be stored in oil fields in the state.

“Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said on Twitter Tuesday. Abbott last week signed into law legislation that attempts to block the project from moving forward.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license Monday to Orano CIS LLC and its joint venture partner, J.F. Lehman & Co.’s Waste Control Specialists LLC, to establish a repository in the heart of Texas’ Permian Basin oil fields for as many as 40,000 metric tons of radioactive waste.

Texas’ blowback underscored the federal government’s decadeslong, futile hunt for a permanent disposal site for spent nuclear fuel. A political logjam over the issue has stranded tons of waste on site at several dozen power plants and other sites across the country including at two nuclear power plants in Texas.

The joint venture, known as Interim Storage Partners LLC, plans to have waste shipped by rail from around the country and sealed in concrete casks where it would be stored above ground at a site about 30 miles from Andrews, Texas, near the New Mexico border.

Local officials once embraced the Texas project as an economic boon, but it now faces stiff opposition from the local community, the state, and oil companies that fear a leak could taint a region that produces millions of barrels of oil a day. The waste can remain radioactive for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years.

“We have opposition to this project on every level,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, an Austin, Texas-based environmental group fighting project. “We do not consider this fight over. We will continue to battle these dangerous plans.”

The Andrews County Commissioners’ Court, which functions as the county’s board of commissioners, had previously backed the plan as a means of diversifying the area’s fortunes from the boom and bust of oil cycles. But it reversed course earlier this year and voted unanimously to oppose the project.

“The concerns are what if there was a leak, if there was an attack, if there was a transportation accident,” County Judge Charlie Falcon said in a phone interview. “It could affect our entire area and we are a very large oil producer in the state.”

Interim Storage Partners said the NRC’s approval was based upon a thorough multi-year review.

“The extensive analyses concluded that this facility’s commercial interim storage and transport operations satisfy all environmental, health, and safety requirements without negative impact to nearby residents or existing industries,” the company said in a statement.

Congress in 1987 designated a ridge in the Nevada desert about 90 miles north of Las Vegas called Yucca Mountain to be the nation’s repository. But decades of political opposition led by Nevada Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kept the project from moving forward. In 2010, President Barack Obama scrapped the plan and the Biden administration opposes its use as well.

Instead, the administration plans to work with Congress and states to reach consent on storing nuclear waste, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told Congress earlier this year.

A similar nuclear waste storage project, proposed in New Mexico by Holtec International Corp., is also awaiting approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The agency said it expects to make a decision on that proposal in January 2022.

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