Nuclear waste in the oil patch? Feds spark clash with Texas

By Edward Klump | 09/15/2021 06:49 AM EST

A nuclear joint venture is seeking to store spent nuclear fuel on a site in Andrews County, Texas. An oil pump jack is pictured in the West Texas county in this photo dated Jan. 20, 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A site in West Texas now has a federal license to store spent nuclear fuel, setting up a potential showdown with state leaders who oppose the prospect of attracting high-level radioactive waste from across the country.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the license for Interim Storage Partners LLC to build and operate an interim storage facility in Andrews County, Texas, on Monday — just days after Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill seeking to restrict nuclear waste storage in the state.

Yesterday, Abbott tried to use the new license in the Permian Basin oil patch to hammer President Biden, though an application for the site was filed in 2016, and the Trump administration didn’t kill the project.

"The Biden Admin. is trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste in west Texas oil fields,” Abbott said on Twitter. “I just signed a law to stop it. Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, declined to comment on the governor’s criticism but said in a statement this week that the "licensing decision was made according to the applicable federal statutes and regulations after thorough, multi-year technical and environmental reviews.”

The drama is being watched by the electricity sector, as nuclear power plants continue to store spent fuel on-site without a permanent U.S. repository. Yucca Mountain in Nevada has failed to garner enough sustained support to be an option (E&E Daily, July 22). In the meantime, backers of the Interim Storage Partners, or ISP, site in West Texas and a separate project in eastern New Mexico from Holtec International have pursued interim storage proposals that could last for decades.

The NRC said this is the second license it has issued for a consolidated storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. The first was in 2006 for a different facility that wasn’t built. A decision on Holtec’s application for a site in Lea County, N.M., is expected in January, according to the nuclear safety regulator. Opposition to Holtec’s plan has been bubbling up in New Mexico, as well.

It remains to be seen how the West Texas proposal will proceed from here. ISP could directly challenge Texas’ stance, or it could take a more conciliatory, wait-and-see approach before seeking to move ahead.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in response to a question from E&E News yesterday, said its “role is to NOT issue authorizations under TCEQ purview as directed in the bill language” if permits are requested for a high-level radioactive waste facility in the state such as the ISP site.

In a statement yesterday, ISP noted that the “proposed facility would be located adjacent to Waste Control Specialists’ existing low-level nuclear materials disposal facility in Andrews County, Texas.” ISP is a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, along with some support from a technology provider called NAC International. A revised license application was submitted in 2018.

ISP said the federal authorization was based on a through, multiyear review. The venture didn’t indicate its next move or provide responses to questions posed by E&E News.

“The extensive analyses concluded that this facility’s commercial interim storage and transport operations satisfy all environmental, health, and safety requirements without negative impact to nearby residents or existing industries,” ISP said in its statement.

Critics have noted safety worries for people who live in West Texas, as well as concerns about transporting nuclear waste across the country.

“There were no surprises in NRC’s announcement, by Twitter, about approving the license for deadly nuclear waste storage in Texas,” Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, said in a statement to E&E News. “There was no acknowledgement of the overwhelming opposition throughout Texas. Just the federal government steamrolling our state to benefit a private company.”

‘Really interesting times’

In a statement before the NRC’s announcement this week, Hadden said opponents would “keep fighting” even if the new license were issued. She said legal challenges remain, and she expressed hope that Texas’ attorney general would fight to protect people. A county commissioners’ body in Andrews County, Texas, also backed a resolution against high-level nuclear waste storage this year, local CBS affiliate KOSA reported.

The recently signed Texas bill, H.B. 7, gained wide support during a recent Texas special session. The measure seeks to prevent a state commission from issuing certain permits related to a potential facility. There are exceptions for storage of high-level radioactive waste such as at the sites of currently or formerly operating nuclear power reactors.

“One document from NRC grants a license evidentially determining that consolidated storage of nuclear waste could be done safely by ISP,” Rod Baltzer, a longtime member of the nuclear industry, said on Twitter. “One document from the Texas Governor says not so fast. Really interesting times.”

Baltzer is the chief operating officer of Deep Isolation, a business tied to nuclear waste disposal. He is a former chief executive of Waste Control Specialists, and he appeared in public to make the case for potential West Texas interim storage in the past (Energywire, Feb. 24, 2017).

The NRC said it authorized ISP to store as much as 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 231.3 metric tons of greater-than-Class-C low-level radioactive waste for 40 years. Such materials can require more stringent disposal or storage methods. NRC noted the potential for an expansion in phases to a possible capacity of 40,000 metric tons of fuel. The commission said each expansion would require a license amendment and additional environmental and safety reviews.

Fred Beach, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said the federal government is on the hook for a storage solution for used nuclear fuel. He said he supports the concept of consolidated interim storage, including at the proposed site in West Texas.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, congratulated ISP on obtaining the NRC license to build and operate the consolidated interim storage facility for used fuel.

“If constructed, this facility would become an important component of our nation’s clean energy infrastructure,” Rodney McCullum, senior director of decommissioning and used fuel at NEI, said in a statement.

Given the legislative action in Texas, he encouraged parties to work together.

“NEI believes that a program to establish an integrated nuclear waste management system — which should include both consolidated interim storage facilities and permanent geological disposal capability — should be reestablished and we are committed to working with the administration, Congress, and the Department of Energy in their efforts to address used fuel management,” McCullum said.

Abbott, meanwhile, wrote to the NRC last November to say he strongly opposed ISP’s proposal for an interim storage facility in Texas and suggested it could affect U.S. energy security as a target for terrorists in a major oil-producing region. He sent another letter this month, highlighting his recent signing of H.B. 7. He urged the NRC to deny the license application.

“Now the State has made clear that a consolidated interim storage facility is not only unwelcome here, but illegal,” Abbott wrote in the letter, dated Sept. 10.

The NRC issued its license for the facility the following Monday, the next business day.