Above, a rendering from Waste Control Specialists showing plans to store highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors at its West Texas site. Courtesy of WCS.
July 2, 2019
Nuclear waste from the nation's nuclear reactors could start rolling through Texas as early as 2023, if a West Texas facility gets the green light.
That's why environmental activists are encouraging concerned Texans to attend a hearing in Midland next week regarding a proposed high-level radioactive waste dump.
If the application submitted by Waste Control Specialists is approved, potentially deadly used fuel from nuclear reactors across the U.S. could soon be traveling through urban communities, including DFW, by rail.
WCS is marketing the used nuclear fuel dump in Andrews, Texas as a stopgap solution to address the lack of a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility in the U.S. But environmentalists say it's too risky.
“There’s no need to take all the waste from around the country to store it in the same way as it’s being stored now,” said Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, based in Austin. “You’re creating more risks of accidents and you’ll have to move it again.”
A coalition of activists including Hadden, Lon Burnam of Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness, Public Citizen’s Texas office, the Sierra Club and others are fighting the proposal.
"They say they just want to be a storage site until a permanent site is located," said Midland activist and organizer David Rosen. "But we think it will become a permanent high level radioactive waste site."
Hadden said the opposition to the radioactive waste dump is strong. She said thousands of public comments have been submitted to the NRC since the application was filed in 2016. And as many as 100 people are expected to show up for the hearing in the remote West Texas town, more than 300 miles west of the Metroplex.
Haden said the outcome could have consequences for all Texans as nuclear waste from across the U.S. would be traveling through major metropolitan areas if the site is approved. However, the proceedings are being buried far from big cities.
“We had to fight to get the hearing in Midland," said Hadden. "Hearings should have been held all over the state in cities like Dallas and Houston.”
Waste Control Specialists, which has operated a low-level radioactive waste dump since 2009, originally applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2016 for a license to construct and operate a Consolidated Interim Storage Facility to store high-level radioactive waste. They proposed to accept 40,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel at its 14,000-acre site, 30 miles west of Andrews. Their plan is to store it for 40 years, until a permanent storage site can be located, with an option to extend the license at 20-year intervals.
Texas anti-nuke activists declared a victory in 2017, when WCS suspended its application due to financial problems.
However, the company, formerly controlled and operated by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons until his death in 2013, was sold to J.F. Lehman & Company in 2018. Following the sale, the new owners reinstated the application with partner Orano USA under the name Interim Storage Partners.
NUKE WASTE BUILDUP
To date, the high-level radioactive waste from spent fuel has been stockpiling at the nation’s 98 nuclear reactors at 60 sites, the majority of which are located east of the Mississippi River.
Map of nuclear reactors at 60 sites in the U.S. Courtesy of NRC.
The U.S. currently has 70,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel and is creating more everyday. The only way for the highly toxic material to become harmless is through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years, according to the NRC.
The Department of Energy is required by law to locate a permanent storage site for high-level radioactive waste. Plans for a permanent disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada have been shelved after fierce political opposition.
“In Nevada, where a high level permanent depository at Yucca Mountain has been planned, they’ve been fighting it for years now,” said Hadden. “Texas needs to do that or we’re going to be the nation’s dumping ground.”
The highly radioactive material will be transported by rail, another cause for alarm, activists say.
Fort Worth is a major U.S. hub for railroad traffic and cars typically idle for hours in the rail yard waiting to pass through. High level radioactive material idling in a rail car would be a prime target for terrorists.
Accidents are another cause for concern.
In addition, the WCS facility sits near the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's largest aquifer, which stretches from Texas to South Dakota.
Critics fear the site will become a defacto high level radiation dump because no one will want to move it. Yet, the facility is not designed for long term storage.
Once at the site, the canisters will sit on a “parking lot” exposed to extremes of weather.
“It’s going to be stored above ground in upright containers in a big parking lot exposed to extremes of temperature, flooding, lightening and wildfires. There’s a lot of risk. The whole thing doesn’t make sense,” said Hadden. “The decision is being based on politics not science.”
The hearing on July 10 is being led by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel. There will be no public comments allowed. However, a panel of three judges, two nuclear engineering experts and one attorney, will hear from scheduled speakers. Attorneys representing Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, Public Citizen’s Texas office and the Sierra Club are among those scheduled to show they have a stake in the discussion. Then the panel must agree that their challenges about the facility merit further consideration.
Hadden said if they are not able to stop the facility through the hearing process, they will take other legal action to oppose the dump.
WCS was the first facility in the country to seek high level radioactive waste. Then in 2017, Holtec International also submitted an application to become a high level dump for a facility just across the Texas border in Lea County, New Mexico.
The entities claim that moving used fuel to an interim location will save taxpayers billions of dollars. The Department of Energy loses money because utilities sue the DOE to recover costs from maintaining these remaining used fuel storage sites. The utilities say they have no choice because DOE has failed to provide a permanent disposal facility.
But environmentalists aren’t the only ones opposing the WCS project. The city of San Antonio, Bexar County and Midland City Council have passed resolutions against the nuke dump.
In addition, Gov. Greg Abbott recently vetoed a popular domestic violence bill saying that he was doing so because it included a provision to delay a fee increase for WCS’s operation.
“Unfortunately, the bill author’s good idea about domestic violence has been dragged down by a bad idea about radioactive waste,” Abbott, a Republican, wrote in his veto statement, according to Texas Tribune.
Many activists hope it is a signal that Abbott does not support high level radioactive waste in Texas, unlike his predecessor Rick Perry.
If you can't attend the hearing, Hadden said this is no time to sit back and see what happens.
“Write to your congressional representatives or senators. Write to our governor. Speak up and be vocal.”
Hearing on High-Level Radioactive Waste Site Proposal
About: The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will consider Waste Control Specialists' application for "Consolidated Interim Storage" of High-Level Radioactive Waste from the nuclear reactors across the U.S. for 40 years with the option to renew storage permits in 20-year increments. Environmentalists are encouraging concerned citizens from throughout Texas to attend in support of opposition and wear red. Signs are allowed outside the courtroom but not inside.
When: July 10, 2019, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The hearing may continue on July 11. Those opposing the application are encouraged to arrive at 8 a.m. Environmentalists will host a press conference on July 9 at 2 p.m.
Where: Midland County Courthouse, 500 N. Loraine Street, Commissioner's Courtroom, Midland, TX
Contact: For information on the protest, call or text David Rosen at 432-634-6081.