Nuclear waste in west Texas? Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton file suit to have plans thrown out

·4 min read

In a bid to block high-level nuclear waste from being stored in the state, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Thursday asking a U.S. appeals court to review the legality of a federal permit issued last week.

The suit calls the permit, granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Sept. 13, “unlawful” and requests that the license be vacated. Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal action.

Paxton filed the suit on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Gov. Greg Abbott, who has publicly opposed plans to store up to 5,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste at a facility near the Texas-New Mexico border for up to 40 years.

Days after Abbott signed a law banning the waste from coming into Texas on Sept. 9, the NRC announced its approval of a permit allowing Interim Storage Partners to do just that.

Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, which applied for the permit as a joint venture, want to expand an existing plant in Andrews County to eventually hold up to 40,000 metric tons of high-level waste that would travel from across the U.S. by rail in sealed concrete casks. Routes to the Andrews facility would pass through Dallas-Fort Worth, according to North Texas environmental advocates opposed to the plans.

Abbott responded to the permit on Twitter Sept. 14, stating that “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.” He blamed the Biden administration for the approval, though the application has been under active consideration since 2018.

In a statement, Interim Storage Partners said the NRC’s authorization was based upon a thorough review of scientific, environmental, safety and economic plans laid out in their application.

“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,” the statement reads.

A spokesperson for Interim Storage Partners said the company would not comment on pending litigation. When reached Thursday evening, NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks said the agency had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and could not immediately comment.

Paxton’s suit will test the Texas law banning the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, also known as spent nuclear fuel, at locations other than former nuclear power reactors and former nuclear research sites on university campuses.

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

North Texans gathered in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission building in Arlington earlier this month to protest a plan bringing waste to the state. A federal permit was utlimately approved.
North Texans gathered in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission building in Arlington earlier this month to protest a plan bringing waste to the state. A federal permit was utlimately approved.

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.

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.

Interim Storage Partners wants to create a centralized storage facility for the waste until it can be moved to a permanent repository, which does not currently exist and continues to be a key issue for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Jeff Isakson, the company’s CEO, told the Star-Telegram last year that the transfer of nuclear materials should not have any effect on people who live, work and drive along the routes to the Andrews facility.

“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.”

Still, environmental activists are worried about potential consequences of bringing waste from across the country to one centralized location.

Karen Hadden, who has organized opposition to the facility as director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, previously told the Star-Telegram that the high-level waste brought to Andrews might never be moved to a repository and stay in Texas permanently.

When reached on Thursday, Hadden said she didn’t know much about the lawsuit beyond Paxton’s short filing. But she was excited that top state officials were taking swift action to oppose the permit.

“I was definitely surprised to see it,” Hadden said. “It was right to the point. It says it’s unlawful and should be vacated, and I couldn’t agree more.”

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