Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report
A plan to bring highly radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear reactors to West Texas has restarted, and a group of anti-nuclear activists is back at work trying to get it killed for good.
On Wednesday, longtime Austin activists Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition and former Public Citizen Texas Director Tom “Smitty” Smith staged a press event with other activists from San Antonio, the Washington, D.C. area, and Germany at the train tracks next to the Alamodome.
They brought along an inflatable resembling a nuclear waste cask to lay near the rail lines. The group is bringing the cask on a statewide tour to represent the thousands of containers of waste that could roll through San Antonio and other cities on their way to the Waste Control Specialists' disposal site 30 miles outside of the Permian Basin town of Andrews, near the New Mexico border.
“This is dangerous, dangerous waste, and there’s no reason for it to come to Texas,” Hadden said.
After being on hold for more than a year, Waste Control Specialists' application to begin accepting high-level nuclear waste is again active before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency in charge of regulating the nuclear industry.
The application is now under a different name – Interim Storage Partners, the result of a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and a company controlled by the French government.
For years, Waste Control Specialists has wanted to become a storage site for spent nuclear fuel rods now being stored at more than 62 operating or closed nuclear power plants around the country.
After they're no longer used to generate power, the fuel rods remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Company executives have said their site is ideal because of its remote location and the impermeable clay soil in the area that isolate it from groundwater.
Waste Control Specialists officials did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.
Across the country, the nuclear power industry has generated roughly 70,000 metric tons of this waste, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That includes about 30 years’ worth of waste now being stored at the South Texas Project, a nuclear plant jointly owned by San Antonio’s CPS Energy, Austin Energy, and NRG Energy.
Nuclear power plants generate electricity by using heat generated by nuclear fission to create steam that spins a turbine. After the fuel rods become too thermally cool to generate electricity, they still emit more than enough radiation to kill a person standing next to them without protective shielding.
That’s why the companies that own this waste store it in metal canisters inside of concrete casks that can weigh more than 100 tons.
Anti-nuclear activists say these casks are vulnerable to unforeseen disasters or terrorist attacks. However, an independent 2006 report by a National Research Council committee states they can withstand punctures, explosions, submersion, and other calamities, though they may be vulnerable to “very long duration, fully engulfing fires.”
Rather than moving the casks across the country to one location, the activists say the waste should instead continue to be stored where it is now with beefed-up security and shielding.
They also warn of the potential dangers involved in transporting the waste to West Texas.
“It is not safe anywhere, but it is even less safe moving it on roads, rail, and waterways,” said Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
The region along the Texas-New Mexico border where Waste Control Specialists operates is already a major hub of the nuclear industry. Uranium enrichment facility Urenco and the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant both lie on the New Mexico side.
For years, Waste Control Specialists has been disposing of low-level radioactive waste from sources like hospitals and research facilities, as well as hazardous waste considered too dangerous to dump in an ordinary landfill.
The proposal to bring the nation’s high-level nuclear waste to Andrews was put on hold for nearly a year until this March, when Waste Control Specialists and a subsidiary of Orano, a company controlled by the French government, announced it would resume the effort.
Financial concerns in 2017 led Waste Control Specialists to ask for a timeout in the federal permitting process. The company was trying to negotiate a sale to Energy Solutions, a competitor in the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.
Before then, Waste Control Specialists was wholly owned by Valhi, a conglomerate controlled by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons before his death in 2013.
Federal antitrust lawyers sued to block the Energy Solutions acquisition, arguing that it would give the companies an unacceptable monopoly on the disposal of low-level waste. A federal judge agreed and blocked the sale in July 2017.
Then, in January, New York private equity firm J.F. Lehman and Co. announced that it had acquired Waste Control Specialists as a “platform investment in the environmental and technical services sector,” as stated in a news release at the time.
"[Waste Control Specialists] maintains an industry-leading reputation and provides an essential solution for the safe disposal of specialized waste streams,” J.F. Lehman partner Alex Harman said in a prepared statement. “We are excited to support the long-term success of the business through continued engagement and partnership with industry stakeholders.”
In June, the application was resumed under Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, a subsidiary of energy company Orano. Orano is one of the few companies licensed to manufacture the casks used in nuclear waste storage.
The joint venture will have to contend not only with anti-nuke activists but also with business entities who oppose the project. These include Fasken Oil and Ranch, a major player in the Permian Basin, and an association for land and energy royalty owners in that region formed to fight the nuclear waste proposal.
In a Sept. 14 filing, an attorney representing both groups opposed the shipment of waste to Waste Control Specialists and another site under review for high-level waste disposal in New Mexico. Both entities have “members who live, work, and travel on or along transportation routes that [the companies] plan to use to transport spent nuclear fuel.”
Some local governments also have opposed the waste shipment. Last year, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, led by then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), passed resolutions opposing the shipping of nuclear waste through San Antonio.
The public can submit comments on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website or the federal rulemaking website until Oct. 19, with an Oct. 29 deadline for entities to legally intervene in the proceedings.