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Texas is one step closer to housing tons of nuclear waste. What that means for DFW


Outside of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Arlington office on Monday, a dozen protesters spoke out against what they saw as the inevitable: The commission was going to approve a federal permit to transport high-level nuclear waste through Dallas-Fort Worth on its way to a West Texas facility.

Hours later, that prediction came true. After years of debate and legal filings, the NRC granted a license to Interim Storage Partners, which seeks to build an “interim storage facility” for high-level nuclear waste, also known as spent nuclear fuel, in Andrews, Texas.

“We truly want to emphasize that we’ve expected to lose this round,” said Lon Burnam, who has organized several protests as the chair of the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness. “And we are ready for the next round, which will be just as important.”

Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists is partnering with Orano USA to expand an existing plant in Andrews with hopes of holding up to 40,000 metric tons of nuclear waste at the facility. Each expansion phase will require an amendment to the permit along with additional safety and environmental reviews, according to the NRC.

Under the terms of the current permit, up to 5,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste and about 231 metric tons of low-level radioactive waste can be stored for 40 years at the facility near the Texas-New Mexico border. The waste could be held there until it’s moved to a permanent repository, which does not currently exist and continues to be a key issue for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The waste poses potentially harmful effects to humans and only decreases in radioactivity through decay, which can take hundreds of thousands of years, according to the NRC, which regulates nuclear power plants and the storage and disposal of waste.

In a statement to the Star-Telegram last year, the president and CEO of Interim Storage Partners, Jeff Isakson, said the West Texas site was selected due to its sparse population, lack of significant erosion and low risk of earthquakes compared to other parts of the country.

“Expanding the region’s economy with this secure interim storage business would help further diversity and moderate volatility in the existing industrial base without impacting other businesses,” Isakson said.

Despite earning the federal permit, the venture in West Texas will continue to face roadblocks on its path to constructing a new facility. Environmental groups are pursuing litigation through federal court, and a law recently signed by Gov. Greg Abbott bans the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas at locations other than former nuclear power reactors and former nuclear research sites on university campuses.

State agencies — including the crucial Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — are also not allowed to issue construction, stormwater or pollution permits for facilities licensed to store high-level nuclear waste, according to the Texas Tribune.

That legislation was spurred by concerns from Andrews County residents, oil and gas industry advocates in West Texas and environmental activists from across the state. The unlikely coalition shares fears about the potential fallout from an accidental spillage or terrorist attack, particularly while the waste is transported by rail car.

The environmental contamination and public health issues caused by an accident would be devastating, said Susybelle Gosslee, the hazardous and nuclear waste issue chair for the League of Women Voters of Texas. She raised concerns that railroad tracks and rail cars are not designed to carry the weight of the spent fuel or the heavy casks that hold it.

“This waste will be transported mostly on rail and occasionally on the highways from 93 nuclear reactors located throughout the country,” Gosslee said. “That means it will be traveling through all of Texas’ largest and highest population cities.”

Isakson, the Interim Storage Partners CEO, said his company does not expect the transfer of nuclear materials to have any effect on people who live, work and drive along the routes to the Andrews facility. Used nuclear fuel pellets are contained inside metal rods sealed inside a welded-shut steel canister, which is then sealed inside a thick, shielded transport cask, he said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also states that the spent fuel transport packages must withstand accident conditions and pass impact, puncture, fire and water immersion tests in sequence. The tests include a 30-foot drop and surviving a fire for 30 minutes.

“As decades of experience with thousands of transports and thorough analyses have shown, there is very little risk to people or communities from transporting the solid used fuel inside these shielded casks,” Isakson said by email. “All aspects of the transport process must meet strict NRC and U.S. Department of Transportation regulations and oversight.”

In July, the NRC released its 684-page environmental impact report examining potential problems caused by the Interim Storage Partners facility. According to commission staff, risks to air quality, public health and geology of the area would be small during all phases of the project.

These assurances have rung hollow to Karen Hadden, the director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, which previously pursued legal action to challenge the permit. Plans to transfer high-level waste from across 44 states are unprecedented, and neither the industry nor the government has experience with a project of this scale, she said.

The NRC has been “captured” and is essentially being run by and for the benefit of the nuclear industry, she added.

“They’re supposed to be regulating, but they’re not,” Hadden said. “The nuclear industry wants this because they intend to make money at everybody else’s risk. The economic impacts would be huge. One accident could cost [taxpayers] billions of dollars.”

It’s not yet clear how the Texas law will be implemented now that the federal permit has been granted to Interim Storage Partners, which has yet to comment on the NRC’s announcement. Burnam challenges the idea that the permit complies with federal law, since it’s for a temporary solution without having established a permanent site for disposal.

And Texas is not alone in facing down the prospect of housing tons of nuclear waste. NRC staff are currently reviewing Holtec International’s application for a similar interim storage facility in Lea County, New Mexico, where the governor and residents have expressed opposition to its construction. That decision is expected in January of next year, according to an NRC statement.

As challenges to the facility continue to play out in court, Gosslee expects North Texas advocacy groups to step up their efforts to spread awareness about the transport of waste through the region and its potential impact on the communities surrounding the railroad tracks.

“We’re gonna be better organized to get more people in the community informed because this is a really big step, and it will get people’s attention,” Gosslee said. “It’s pretty clear when they license it that we’ve got another battle to fight.”