87th LegislatureElections 2022EnergyWest Texas High-Level Nuclear Waste Storage Facility Comes Under Governor’s Race Spotlight After License Approval

An obscure fight over storage of nuclear waste became a topic in the gubernatorial primary after incumbent Greg Abbott touted his support for its prohibition in Texas.
September 15, 2021
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The GOP primary for governor gained a new fault line after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal government’s arm overseeing the nation’s nuclear industry, approved a license for the interim storage of high-level radioactive waste at a planned facility in West Texas.

That approval came on Monday, just days after Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation prohibiting such storage in the State of Texas.

On Tuesday, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the passage of House Bill (HB) 7 and condemned the licensure, tweeting, “The Biden Admin. is trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste in west Texas oil fields. I just signed a law to stop it.”

“Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

The bill, however, exempts the hundreds of facilities throughout Texas that store nuclear materials and several that already store spent nuclear fuel on their premises. 

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The two foremost such examples are the state’s nuclear power plants with two reactors each that generate electricity for the power grid — one near Houston and the other near Dallas-Fort Worth.

One of those facilities, Houston, which stores thousands of tons of spent nuclear waste, found itself in the path of a hurricane this week.

Monitoring the facility, the NRC stated, “We’ve independently confirmed that water tight doors are shut, walkdowns on site have been conducted and that any loose items have been either secured or removed.”

“By design and regulation, the plant’s safety systems are built to handle extreme weather ensuring nuclear safety is maintained.”

Abbott’s framing of the issue into one of Texas versus the Biden administration ignores the fact that the license’s application process spans three administrations, beginning in 2016.

The only steps of the process that have occurred during Biden’s presidency are the release of the final Environmental Impact Statement and the NRC’s official license approval. The two acceptance letters of the application were received during the Trump administration in 2017 and 2018.

However, another factor that has spanned administrations is the federal government’s failure to finish the proposed permanent storage site for high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Originally ordered by Congress to be completed by 1998, the Department of Energy has bungled its completion decade after decade.

One of Abbott’s opponents, BlazeTV host Chad Prather, echoed support for HB 7. 

“The audacity of the Federal Government to want to store/dump the most dangerous and highly radioactive material waste in Texas is not acceptable,” said Prather in a statement to The Texan.

“This type of waste is one of the byproducts of nuclear energy that even though nuclear power has been in the United States since the 1950’s there has been no long-term solution on how to handle and manage this waste, which will remain dangerous for more than 10,000 years.”

“Texans come first in Texas, not nuclear garbage. We aren’t Washington’s dumpster,” Prather concluded.

Eventually, the nuclear facilities in operation will need to be replaced, called a “nuclear cliff,” and that waste must be dealt with. And so, the country’s storage option for its aging nuclear facilities’ waste is the interim model — which is likely to be accompanied by billions of dollars in federal money.

But whether Texas should be part of that option is hotly debated.

The West Texas facility, owned by Interim Storage Partners (ISP) and a joint project of Orano USA and Waste Control Specialists — which operates an already established low-level radioactive waste storage facility adjacent to the proposed ISP site — would store spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis of up to 40 years.

Spent nuclear fuel, classified as high-level nuclear waste, consists of the used uranium atoms and the fuel rods in which they sit during the fission process. When stored, it is encapsulated in thick concrete containers and during part of the process, submerged under water.

Upon approval of the license, ISP said, “This authorization is based upon the multi-year and thorough review and validation of the various scientific, engineering, environmental, safety, and economic assumptions, designs and plans set forth in the 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 ISP interim storage license is the second one of its kind approved by the NRC. The first was issued for a facility in Utah in 2006 that was never constructed after funding fell through. Another application is moving through the NRC approval process in Lea County, New Mexico.

Another gubernatorial challenger, Allen West, weighed in shortly after, taking a contrary stance to the governor and criticized HB 7 for not going far enough.

“[T]he concern about having an expanded nuclear waste facility in the Permian Basin is that the long-term energy security of America could be put at risk,” West said in a statement. “Of particular concern is the allowance of nuclear waste to be stored in shallow facilities, in the Andrews case on a cement slab on the surface.”

Also taking the opportunity to turn the issue against the White House, West added, “With the collapse of Afghanistan and fundamentalist Islam on the rise again thanks to the failures of the Biden Administration, the state of Texas should not be building a bullseye for bad actors.”

West’s position echoes Rep. Tom Craddick’s (R-Midland) during the legislative debate during which he tried to pass amending language expanding the ban’s language beyond the certain categories that Rep. Brooks Landgraf’s (R-Odessa) bill named.

The former Texas GOP chair also called other stricter measures to tamp down on the storage and transportation of the spent nuclear fuel.

Absent the entire discussion’s focus on qualms with the storage of spent nuclear fuel is the fact that the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal is manufactured in Amarillo and is transported across the state.

But for now, the reservations about storing such waste in Texas is driving the debate — the one caveat being how broadly does the state want to issue its prohibition.

Meanwhile, the fate of the project is still up in the air. Just because the license was issued, does not mean the project will move forward — evidenced by the Utah facility’s collapse. And the new state law, along with the formidable opposition held by Texas officials and figures, present an unassailable barrier to its construction in the near term.

For more background on this issue, read here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the existing storage facilities in reference to HB 7. 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.