A rendering from Waste Control Specialists shows plans to store highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors above ground at its West Texas site. The public comment period has been extended to Nov. 3. Courtesy of WCS.

Aug. 4, 2020

With Texans riveted by Covid-19, racial injustice and the upcoming presidential election, Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists passed another hurdle in its bid to bring high-level radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear reactors to Texas. 

In May, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a draft study of the project’s environmental impact, giving a preliminary green light on the project.

“The NRC is more interested in ramming this waste dump through than in protecting citizens or property that could be impacted,” said Karen Hadden, director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition

The proposed permit was submitted by Interim Storage Partners, a partnership of Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, a subsidiary of the France-based global nuclear fuel cycle company, in 2016.

Since then, a coalition of Texas activists, including SEED, Sierra Club, Public Citizen Texas and the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness have been fighting the application every step of the way.

Lon Burnam, director of Tarrant Environmental Awareness Coalition, said he fears that residents of the state’s populated urban centers do not fully understand the implications.

“Frankly, 99.9 percent of the population doesn't even know this proposal is on the horizon,” said Burnam.

An online public comment period has been extended through Nov. 3. Hadden and Burnam are both urging Texans to raise their voices. This could be the last chance to comment before the application is approved. A press release from NRC said it may hold a public hearing but it would be held in Andrews County, about 400 miles west of Dallas, where the proposed site is located.

“We asked for public hearings in major cities where transportation of the material is likely to pass through,” said Hadden. “They’re really avoiding any place where they might have opposition.”

According to Marfa Public Radio, some Andrews County residents want the nuclear waste. Waste Control Specialists has given the region millions of dollars over the years. 

“This is a classic example of a company town,” said Burnam. ”They fund parks and swimming pools.”

Adrian Shelley at No Nuke RallyAdrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen's Texas office, at a rally in Austin last year. Courtesy of Public Citizen.

‘MOBILE CHERNOBYL’

The original application was submitted in 2016, when Interim Storage Partners requested a license to store 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at its 14,000 acre site in Andrews County, with plans to store up to 40,000 metric tons  

The storage canisters would be transported by rail from operating, decommissioning and decommissioned commercial nuclear power plants around the country. 

If the plan is approved, the highly deadly spent fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear reactors would pass through the state’s urban centers, including Dallas-Fort Worth, by rail.

Activists point to recent railroad accidents, extreme weather events and the threat of terrorism as reasons to doubt the safety of the proposed plan. 

ISP's plan is only a stopgap to dealing with the waste. While Waste Control Specialists has operated a low-level radioactive waste dump since 2012, the facility is not built to permanently store high level radioactive waste.

Once at the site, the canisters will sit above ground on a “parking lot” exposed to extremes of weather. The facility sits near the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's largest aquifer, which stretches from Texas to South Dakota. 

“There’s a lot of risk," said Hadden, before a NRC hearing last year. "The whole thing doesn’t make sense. The decision is being based on politics not science.”

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. Activists say the site will become a defacto high level radioactive dump because no one will want to move the material again.

Map of nuclear reactors at 60 sites in the U.S. Courtesy of NRC.

WASTE PROBLEM

To date, the high-level radioactive waste from spent fuel has been stockpiling at the nation’s 95 nuclear reactors at 60 sites, the majority of which are located east of the Mississippi River. 

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 underground 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. 

RALLYING OPPOSITION

Hadden said it’s a tough topic for people to swallow.

“People have their hands very full with Covid and economic challenges and the Black Lives Matter movement. The topic is very technical and it’s not fun to think about.”

Linda Hanratty, a Fort Worth resident and member of Tarrant Coalition for Environment Awareness, has been attending online seminars to get up-to-speed on the issue.

“I don’t think most people realize it’s going to go right through Tarrant County,” said Hanratty. “If anything really happened, it would destroy our community. The railroad runs right through the center of town, past our hospital districts and downtown. It would go right through downtown Arlington.”

The Dallas County Commissioners Court has passed a resolution opposing the plan. Midland, Nueces and Bexar counties and the city of San Antonio have passed similar resolutions. The mayors of Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Austin have yet to weigh in.

Environmentalists have found an unlikely ally in Fasken Oil and Ranch in West Texas, which has joined them in opposing the application.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” said Burnam. “You don't usually find the environmental community aligned with the oil and gas community, but they are in this particular battle, which gives me a little bit of hope.”

Burnam said we are at a crucial moment with regard to nuclear operations in the U.S. 

“So many of these plants have outlasted their life expectancy and need to be shutdown.”

And there's no exit strategy in place.

Meanwhile, for many environmentalists, concerns about nuclear power have been put on the back burner with climate change in the spotlight. But Burnam said the issue should remain on activists’ radar.

“While there are a lot of horrible things that are happening to the environment, there's nothing as horrible, nor as toxic, as plutonium,” said Burnam. “The main reason that the environmental community should be concerned about this is because [nuclear] waste is forever.”
 

West Texas Nuclear Waste Dump

About: Interim Storage Partners, a partnership of Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, has requested a license to "temporarily" store 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at its 14,000-acre site in Andrews County, with plans to store up to 40,000 metric tons. The storage canisters would be transported by rail from operating, decommissioning and decommissioned commercial nuclear power plants around the country. The NRC recently released a draft study of the project’s environmental impact.

Opposition: A coalition of Texas activists, including SEED, Sierra Club, Public Citizen Texas and the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness, oppose the plan due to the high risk of transportating the lethal material by rail through major population centers. In addition, the facility is not designed to store high level radioactive waste. Critics say the West Texas facility is at risk of becoming a permanent site for the nation's most deadly nuclear waste because of the dangers of relocating the waste a second time. They are asking concerned residents to comment on the plan.

Online Public Comment: UPDATE: The NRC site is being redesigned so you will be redirected to what they're calling the regulations "beta site." Until Oct. 31, use this link to comment. Use Docket ID, NRC-2016-0231. If you have any questions about submitting your comment, contact the NRC support desk at 877-378-5457.

Modify and send a letter composed by Austin-based NoNuclearWaste.org.

Email: The NRC will accept email comments at: [email protected]. The Docket ID, NRC-2016- 0231, should be included in the subject line of comments.

USPS: Comments can also be mailed to: Office of Administration, Mail Stop: TWFN-7-A60M, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555-0001, ATTN: Program Management, Announcements and Editing Staff.

Deadline: Nov. 3, 2020.

Website

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