Texas bans storage of highly radioactive waste, but a West Texas facility may get a license from the feds anyway

The Waste Control Specialists radioactive and hazardous waste storage site in Andrews, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2021.
The Waste Control Specialists radioactive and hazardous waste storage site in Andrews, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2021.

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday night signed a bill into law that attempts to block a plan to store highly radioactive nuclear waste at a site in West Texas.

House Bill 7 effectively bans highly radioactive materials from coming to Texas, targeting one company’s plan to build such a facility near the New Mexico border in Andrews County.

But, the new state law may soon be in conflict with federal regulators. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is advancing the company’s application for a license to allow the high-level nuclear waste to Texas, and a decision from the federal agency could come as early as Monday, a spokesperson with the commission said.

For years, environmental and consumer advocates have protested a proposal by a West Texas company, Waste Control Specialists, to build with a partner an interim storage site for high-level nuclear waste, which is mostly spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants. Waste Control Specialists has been disposing of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste, including tools, building materials and protective clothing exposed to radioactivity, for a decade in Andrews County.

Scientists agree that spent nuclear fuel, which is currently kept on-site at nuclear power plants, should be stored deep underground, but the U.S. still hasn’t located a suitable site. The plan by the WCS joint venture, Interim Storage Partners, proposes storing it in above-ground casks until a permanent location is found. Spent nuclear fuel can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

The joint venture, Interim Storage Partners, applied to the NRC for a license to store spent nuclear fuel — the most dangerous type of nuclear waste — on a site adjacent to that existing facility until a permanent underground repository is built. No such facility currently exists in the U.S.

“We continue to review the Interim Storage Partners application according to the applicable federal statutes and regulations,” said David McIntyre, a spokesperson for the NRC, in response to whether the new Texas law will change the agency’s review.

In July, NRC staff recommended in an environmental review that the site be approved to take the most dangerous type of nuclear waste. A final decision will be made by the agency’s office of nuclear material safety and safeguards.

The new law, which is effective immediately and was authored by Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa, whose district the proposed facility would be located in, bars the transportation and disposal or storage of high-level radioactive waste in Texas. It effectively signals to the NRC and the company that the proposal will not be permitted under state law.

Residents of Andrews County opposed the plan to bring the spent nuclear fuel to the area due to fears of an accident, environmental contamination and transportation through their communities; the county’s commissioners court adopted a resolution opposing high-level nuclear waste. Some oil companies opposed the plan, too, given that the facility is proposed in the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. Abbott also has consistently opposed the plan, writing in a letter to the NRC that the facility presents “a greater radiological risk than Texas is prepared to allow.”

Waste Control Specialists and Interim Storage Partners declined through a spokesperson to comment on the legislation.

The legislation includes a ban on disposing of high-level radioactive waste in Texas other than former nuclear power reactors and former nuclear research and test reactors on university campuses (nuclear power plants must keep the waste generated from operations on-site until a long-term disposal site is created). The law will also bar state agencies from issuing construction, stormwater or pollution permits for facilities that are licensed to store high-level radioactive waste.

Environmental groups applauded the state law: “We hope [the law] sends a clear message to the feds: We don’t want it,” said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, in a statement.

Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, an alliance of businesses and organizations that has long opposed the nuclear waste facility, said in a statement that the law will “prevent unnecessary transportation risks nationwide.”

Landgraf said in a statement that the state law should halt the construction of a site to store high-level nuclear waste because the law now bars the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality from issuing the state permits that would be necessary to construct such a facility. He said the law protects Texas from “becoming the storage site for the entire country’s high-level radioactive waste.”

“It was crucial for the state legislature to ban high-level radioactive waste before the federal government issues a license,” Landgraf said.

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