MARFA, Texas (CN) – As a plan to ship highly radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants to a remote corner of the West Texas desert slogs its way through government bureaucracy, environmental groups’ hopes of having a say in the matter appear to be vanishing.
The years-long process surrounding the plan is nearing a crucial juncture, one where regulators may soon decide whether to approve the idea without formally considering concerns from critics.
“Are we being ignored? Yeah, we’re being ignored big time,” said Terry Lodge, an attorney for the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development – or SEED – Coalition.
A company called Interim Storage Partners wants to bring about half of the nation’s growing, problematic stockpile of high-level nuclear waste to an existing toxic waste storage facility on the Texas-New Mexico border, where the waste would likely be housed for decades until the government decides on a more permanent way to dispose of it.
A site in Nevada was once considered a top prospect for that longer-term goal. That idea was abandoned in 2010, though there have been more recent attempts to revive it.
The SEED Coalition and groups like it, along with a prominent oil and ranching company, have attempted to raise various legal, environmental and safety concerns about the interim West Texas proposal, but a panel of administrative judges housed under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has in recent months rejected the critics’ concerns. The panel found that the groups either lacked legal standing to argue against the proposal or that their specific arguments did not warrant further consideration.
Opponents feel they are being wrongly pushed out of the proceedings in an attempt to speed up the nuclear waste plan.
“We’ve proffered somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 contentions of all manner of things, and not a damned one is deemed to meet the incredibly abstruse requirements of the NRC,” Lodge said in an interview. “I find it to be pretty suspect.”
The commission rejected the idea that the process is being rushed in the manner opponents have described.
“The [panel’s] procedures and schedules are designed to make any hearing proceedings fair and timely,” NRC spokesperson David McIntyre said. “This proceeding is no different.”
“The NRC licensing process for consolidated interim storage of used nuclear fuel is a very thorough and comprehensive process allowing for several opportunities for public input,” Jeffery Isakson, CEO of Interim Storage Partners, said in a statement. “Presenting the facts is a responsibility we take very seriously, and we hold great respect for the NRC processes and procedures that allow us to present those facts and clarify any misunderstandings.”
The Sierra Club, another group opposing the plan, intends to appeal its rejection from the proceedings, while the SEED Coalition has asked to file a new complaint arguing that a September government report raised new concerns about the risks of transporting nuclear waste. The report was issued by the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board.
“They are essentially saying the things we don’t know about how to transport this waste safely far outnumber the things that we know,” said Thomas Smith, the former Texas lead for the advocacy group Public Citizen and longtime critic of the West Texas proposal. “It could have deadly and disastrous consequences if we get this wrong.”
A representative with a top nuclear power trade group disputed that assessment of the report, pointing to past shipments of high-level waste that have been carried out without major disasters.
More than 1,300 such shipments have been completed in the U.S. over the past 35 years, according to the NRC, though four shipments did result in accidents where no radiation was released.
“For the types of shipments that would be headed to Texas, the concerns that the board has raised are not applicable,” said Rod McCullum, a policy advocate with the Nuclear Energy Institute. “I think they unearthed a lot of things that need to be done, but I would assure you that those things would be done.”
Outside Texas, many support the idea of moving nuclear waste away from power plants that are often located near heavily populated areas, as opposed to the more remote areas of West Texas.
Democratic lawmakers in Congress have promoted bills that would help move such a plan forward, while the nuclear power industry supports the idea as part of a broader strategy to deal with the nuclear waste buildup.
While critics push regulators to take more time vetting the West Texas proposal, they also admit their campaign is losing steam and could be dealt a fatal blow, should the panel of judges ultimately move forward with the plan without weighing the merits of opponents’ complaints.
“There are virtually no more administrative avenues, nor legal avenues,” said Smith. “The next big focus is going to have to be on Congress.”
Opponents have nonetheless been encouraged by statements on the issue this year by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
Abbott has spoken out on Twitter against the idea of making Texas “the radioactive waste dumping ground of America.” In an April letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Abbott said he opposed “any increase in the amount or concentration of radioactivity authorized for disposal” at the West Texas site, though the letter did not specifically address the idea of storing waste there until it could be moved elsewhere.
“While the state of Texas probably can’t prevent it outright, I think they certainly could pass some laws that would make it financially difficult for this site to ever open for high-level waste,” said Cyrus Reed, interim director of the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter. “We may need to go to the Legislature ultimately to prevent this from happening.”