Regulators Limit Scope of Fight Over West Texas Nuclear Waste Site

An existing nuclear waste storage site in rural West Texas is vying to house more radioactive types of waste from the nation’s power plants. (Courtesy WCS)

MARFA, Texas (CN) – Environmental groups opposing plans to transport spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants to a remote corner of West Texas discovered Friday they will not be able to argue their case to regulators as expansively as they had hoped.

A panel of administrative judges with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to limit the arguments commissioners will consider as they weigh whether to approve the plan put forth by Interim Storage Partners.

Last year, the company revived the idea of bringing the waste to a facility in Andrews County, Texas after the plan had fallen apart in the wake of a failed corporate merger. The regulatory commission accepted a new license application for the proposal in August of 2018.

Ranchers, environmental groups and even a wealthy West Texas oil family have opposed the idea, saying it poses dangers to communities near the facility on the Texas-New Mexico border and beyond, as the waste would have to be shipped hundreds of miles from various power plants across the country.

The facility has for years housed less-radioactive types of nuclear waste, which has also drawn the ire of opponents, but the plan before regulators now would involve “high-level” waste.

Massive amounts of that kind of waste are currently stockpiled at the nation’s nuclear power plants, with no clear plan in sight as to where it should ultimately wind up.

“This spent nuclear fuel, which can pose serious risks to humans and the environment, is enough to fill a football field about 20 meters deep,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office notes.

A site in Nevada was once considered a top prospect, but the idea was abandoned in 2010.

Though multiple advocacy groups have rallied against the idea of bringing the waste to Texas, Friday’s decision from the commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board means that, barring appeals, only the Sierra Club will be allowed to formally contest the plan in regulatory proceedings.

The board’s decision centered on the fact that the organization has a member who lives “about six miles away” from the remote facility the waste would be sent to.

“This distance is well within the limits that have been found to confer standing to challenge much smaller storage facilities, and the [commission] staff agrees that Sierra Club has established standing,” the decision states.

Under the decision, the Sierra Club will only be allowed to put forth one argument: its contention that environmental studies of the waste plan did not sufficiently address possible threats to two threatened animals – the Texas horned lizard and dunes sagebrush lizard.

The board rejected petitions from multiple other groups that wanted a say in the license consideration, including Beyond Nuclear, Public Citizen and West Texas-based Fasken Land and Minerals.

“Today’s ruling leaves unanswered significant questions about the risk of high-level nuclear waste storage in Texas,” Public Citizen said in a statement. “The application to store high-level waste in West Texas ignores significant risks, misinterprets federal law, and dismisses the concerns of potentially impacted communities. There are many unanswered questions and concerns that state and federal lawmakers must consider.”

Interim Storage Partners responded in a statement, saying its priority “will always be the safety of the public.”

“We are reviewing the decision and will decide on next steps,” the statement read. “While we may provide additional clarifying information as the proceedings continue, we know the public can and should have confidence as a result of this process and in the safety and security of our proposed consolidated interim storage facility.”

The rejected groups could appeal the board’s decision, as could the waste storage company.

A spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it could be months still before any appeals are considered and a final decision is reached on the waste company’s overall proposal.

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