Regulatory Process Could Intensify Debate Over Nuclear Waste in Texas

A facility in rural West Texas, on the border with New Mexico, already houses certain kinds of nuclear waste. (Photo courtesy of Waste Control Specialists)

MARFA, Texas (CN) – A relatively quiet proceeding underway at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission could open a new chapter in a years-long debate about whether Texas should help solve the nation’s nuclear waste problem.

As stockpiles of “high level” radioactive waste have piled up at nuclear power plants across the U.S., environmental advocates have for years warned about the potential consequences of a plan to bring the waste to a remote West Texas facility on the border with New Mexico.

But federal regulators are separately considering the prospect of allowing such facilities to take on a different variety of nuclear waste that, while less radioactive than the “high level” stuff, also has environmental groups worried about the possibility of accidents and spills.

“Nothing about this plan makes sense,” Karen Hadden, head of the environmental group SEED Coalition, wrote in an August letter to a Texas commission that oversees nuclear waste issues. “This is a plan designed to tempt fate, not a good idea when it comes to radioactive waste.”

The plan Hadden referenced is far from solidified, but its rough outline dates back a few years.

Waste Control Specialists, the company that owns the Texas facility, first expressed interest in receiving “greater than class C, or GTCC, waste from around the country in 2014.

Texas has never allowed such a facility to handle that particular category of waste, which includes things like contaminated hardware from nuclear plants. But, prompted by WCS, Texas asked the federal government in 2015 for clarity on whether it could change state law on the issue.

Flash forward to this year, when the bureaucratic back-and-forth culminated in a “draft regulatory basis” released by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that lays out how federal rules could be changed to allow states to take in and oversee GTCC waste.

“The laws and the rules right now dictate that this stuff needs to be stored deep underground,” said Adrian Shelley, head of the advocacy group Public Citizen’s office in Texas. “If they change that, then we are likely to see a concrete proposal for West Texas that is just inadequate and unnecessarily creates risk for the region.”

The Department of Energy has said it wants the nation’s stockpile of GTCC waste to be disposed of at the West Texas site, but the company has yet to formally apply for the job. A company spokesperson was not available for an interview on Tuesday.

One key player could still throw a wrench into the momentum toward bringing any type of nuclear waste to Texas: the state’s Republican governor.

“At this time, I oppose any increase in the amount or concentration of radioactivity authorized for disposal at the facility in Andrews County, Texas,” Governor Greg Abbott wrote in an April letter to two federal officials.

The governor later vetoed a domestic violence bill this year because it included an unrelated amendment that would have given the waste company a break on fees, a move that encouraged the company’s opponents.

“We absolutely see him as an ally in this effort,” Shelley said.

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