87th LegislatureEnergyTexas’ Burgeoning Nuclear Footprint Featured in Fight Over High-Level Radioactive Waste Storage Facility

Nuclear reactions are not only harnessed to power a significant portion of the state's grid, but also for other purposes such as innovative medical treatment.
September 3, 2021
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High-level radioactive waste can reach temperatures in the thousands of degrees Fahrenheit, but obscure legislation governing its storage and disposal featured debate that burned even hotter.

House Bill (HB) 7 by Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) would prohibit the interim storage of high-level radioactive waste in Texas, with certain exceptions. High-level radioactive waste, or used nuclear fuel, is a byproduct of nuclear fission — the process of splitting a uranium atom by striking it with a neutron.

Nuclear plants replicate this process over and over and the reactions give off heat which then boils water to create steam that in turn spins turbines that, in power plants, creates electricity.

Landgraf’s bill is specifically aimed at the storage of such waste at a prospective Consolidated Interim Storage Facility in Andrews County — for which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is slated to approve an interim storage license this month. That West Texas project is owned by Interim Storage Partners (ISP), jointly owned by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) and Orano USA. WCS currently operates a low-level storage facility in the same area.

If approved, the West Texas ISP facility’s license would allow used nuclear fuel to be stored on an interim basis, up to 40 years, but the facility itself would not be constructed for several years after the license’s approval. The license application was first filed in April of 2016.

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The company estimates the project will generate “more than $4 million in labor per year” during construction and operation.

When asked for comment on the debate, ISP representatives directed The Texan to its Frequently Asked Questions website page, citing the licensing process.

Back in March, Landgraf announced the bill saying, “My constituents are on board with low-level storage, as used rubber gloves and hospital gowns provide little reason for concern. But high-level radioactive waste, like spent nuclear fuel, is a horse of an entirely different color.”

HB 7 is an attempt to preclude that license from being issued.

Texas has two nuclear plants, one in Bay City and another in Glen Rose, that generate about 10 percent of the state’s electricity.

But there are hundreds of other nuclear-related facilities scattered across Texas, ranging from medical labs and hospitals to university research centers. Additionally, America’s entire nuclear arsenal is assembled and disassembled at the Pantex facility in Amarillo.

Both the University of Texas and Texas A&M University have nuclear reactor facilities on their campuses — and both universities as well as the state’s two power plants store the radioactive waste on-site. Each of those facilities is carved out from the bill’s prohibition.

Despite a few calamitous instances, only one of which led to deaths or runoff health problems of those affected, the nuclear industry has become effective at not only generating electricity safely and efficiently, but also at storing and disposing of that generation’s waste.

And that one instance, Chernobyl, was a consequence of mechanical failures that led to an uncontrollable power surge that was then exacerbated by bureaucratic malfeasance from the Soviet Union and its Communist Party.

“As always, the challenge in the nuclear debate is the emotions and not the actual science, and this is a classic case of that,” said Dale Klein, an associate vice chancellor of research with the University of Texas and a former chairman of the NRC.

He continued, “If people really looked at the safety issues, it’s not as much of a safety issue as the emotions sometimes direct you.”

“That said, the Department of Energy doesn’t exude confidence because they were supposed to have a permanent high-level waste disposal site by 1998.”

That site, supposed to be at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, never materialized and the United States still has no permanent disposal site. The only ones in existence or development are in Finland, Sweden, and France.

Nuclear’s utility expands beyond power generation. In addition to generating electricity for the power grid, a similar concept is used to treat cancer such as at the forthcoming facility at Abilene Christian University (ACU). MD Anderson in Houston also has a proton therapy facility.

Tony Hill, a senior physics researcher with ACU, testified in support of HB 7 in front of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Economic Development — but expressed concern that the bill as written would not allow ACU to move forward with its facility.

“I certainly support not allowing Texas to become the storage site for high-level radioactive waste,” Hill stated, “but I fear that that language could potentially prevent us from moving forward and prevent Texas from moving forward with advanced nuclear options.”

Radioactive waste is not limited to nuclear fission. It can be, and is created during processes as divergent as oil and gas excavation — but that waste is of a lower classification.

The storage process is intensive and closely monitored by the NRC. As classified by the NRC, there are two levels of radioactive waste generated during this process: low, which is split into A, B, and C classes, and high.

The lower classes of low-level waste comprise of items that may have been contaminated during the nuclear process such as clothing, mops, and other industrial items. The higher classes of low-level waste consists of components of the reactor core or other aspects of the fission infrastructure. And high-level waste is the spent nuclear fuel or fuel rods in which the uranium pellets sit.

Only making up less than five percent of the radioactive waste in the entire process, high-level waste, or the spent nuclear fuel, can be recycled and reused — a process that France has pioneered by “closing” its nuclear fuel cycle. But the U.S. does not yet recycle its spent nuclear fuel like France does, and so storage is the focus stateside.

Storage is done by submerging underwater the spent fuel in concrete containers with steel liners underground for at least five years. It can then be transferred to a “dry cask” container where it may sit for up to 40 years.

HB 7 faced little opposition and the bill passed the House 94 to 32, but the contention came over an amendment by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland).

The first version of Craddick’s amendment would have struck the inclusion of “spent nuclear fuel as defined by 42 U.S.C. Section 10101(23)” to be replaced with a broader classification of prohibited waste to include everything above Class C low-level radioactive waste.

Where Landgraf’s version only applies to high-level waste, Craddick’s amendment would have included all above Class C low-level waste, prohibiting anything that may fall in between. But that language was not adopted.

Both of Craddick’s attempts to amend Landgraf’s bill were successfully thwarted by the Odessan’s points of order, parliamentary maneuvers that expose violations of House rules.

Fighting it out in the Midland-Reporter Telegram, Craddick said, “Brooks Landgraf used a procedural move to prohibit any consideration of the amendment.”

“Rep. Landgraf after removing my amendment from consideration stated before the full House of Representatives he agreed with the need for a ban language offered in my amendment. He could and should have accepted my amendment.”

He further added, “Radioactive waste in the form of spent nuclear fuel and reactor-related greater than class C waste represents a very real threat to the Permian Basin, all Texans and America.”

Currently stored at the WCS West Texas facility is the nuclear reactor core from the U.S. military’s STURGIS first floating nuclear power plant — used to supply power during construction on the Panama Canal during the 1960s. The core, which is classified as a higher level of low-level waste, has been stored in Andrews County in 2017.

“To date,” Craddick concluded, “there is no temporary or permanent storage facility anywhere in America. Nevada rejected the waste. New Mexico rejected the waste. Now they have targeted Texans, and we have to reject the waste. The Permian Basin is no place for this storage.”

Despite the guttural angst triggered for many by the thought of nuclear waste, there have been zero examples of calamitous accidents during the transportation or storage of spent nuclear fuel.

Their differences on the bill notwithstanding, Craddick’s and Landgraf’s opposition to the nuclear storage in Texas places them among strange bedfellows. 

Being two oil- and gas-focused politicians, they suddenly find themselves aligned with environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, which has planted its flag adamantly against the West Texas facility. The Sierra Club’s Texas chapter testified on the bill at each committee hearing in the House and Senate.

Most, but not all, environmental groups are often reflexively opposed to nuclear energy despite the fact that the plants, save for the plant construction process or front-end uranium mining, emit no air pollution.

Klein pointed to this dichotomy, stating, “If the State of Texas wants to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, and they want to do so in a reliable fashion, then nuclear power needs to play a role in that.”

Landgraf, though, had enough clout with the governor to have it added to the second special session agenda after failing during the regular session by Craddick’s point of order.

The Senate passed the legislation on Wednesday with only one amendment: setting the effective date of the bill to December 5. And the House concurred with the Senate’s amendment Thursday afternoon, so HB 7 is on its way to the governor’s desk.

For reasons ranging from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl, there is a pervasive stigma against nuclear, and as such the power and waste it generates. That concern is not born out of thin air — nuclear power’s runoffs are undoubtedly hazardous materials. 

But the trade-off of its power or other utility for its waste has long been an easier bargain to accept as its storage and disposal has become increasingly dependable for decades now. But whether the pros outweigh the cons on storage is still clearly a hotly debated issue.

And as Craddick and Landgraf show, every state wants the benefits of nuclear’s product without being responsible for its waste.

Klein added, “I think high-level waste [storage] is like a landfill: everybody understands that they need one, but they don’t want it in their state or near where they live.”

“This is a policy issue, not a safety issue and whatever the decision the people of Texas make, it needs to be based on science, not emotion.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the classes of low-level waste. We regret the error.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.