John Ward, operations project task manager at Waste Control Specialists’ facility near Andrews, Texas, is pictured in 2017 inspecting concrete canisters that will house drums of nuclear waste. FOR THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
If approved by federal regulators, at least 5,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste from across the U.S. could travel through the Metroplex on its way to a West Texas storage facility that already stores low-level radioactive materials.
High-level nuclear waste refers to spent, or used, reactor fuel and waste materials that exist after the used fuel is reprocessed for disposal. The radioactive 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 Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that regulates nuclear power plants and the storage and disposal of waste.
Activists who oppose the West Texas plan say the impact will not be limited to residents of Andrews County, where the toxic waste site owned by Waste Control Specialists already sits near the Texas-New Mexico border. The commission is considering a similar plan for a high-level waste storage facility in southeastern New Mexico, brought forward by the nuclear company Holtec.
Transporting the waste to the New Mexico and West Texas facilities by rail car and through major cities, including those in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, could be a Pandora’s Box of problems for North Texans, said Lon Burnam, a former state representative and the chair of the Tarrant Coalition for Environmental Awareness.
“We’ve created all this waste, there’s no good way to handle it, and the question is: What is the least objectionable way to handle it?” Burnam said. “But carting it all through Dallas-Fort Worth, from my perspective, is one of the worst ways to handle it. Why should we be the community that 90% of this stuff goes through on its way to either West Texas or the New Mexico side?”
For years, the U.S. Department of Energy has struggled to find a long-term storage solution for the country’s growing stockpile of radioactive waste. With no permanent destination for safe disposal, more than 80,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste sit at the country’s commercial nuclear plants, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Interim Storage Partners, comprised of Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists and global nuclear power company Orano, revived its application efforts in August 2018 with the goal of providing a centralized storage facility for the waste until it can be moved to a permanent repository, which does not currently exist. The license would last for at least 40 years, and the amount of high-level waste stored in Andrews County could swell to 40,000 metric tons, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents.
The site was selected due to its geological features, including its low seismic risk and lack of surface water in the vicinity, as well as the facility’s ability to provide “economic diversification” for the West Texas community, said Jeff Isakson, the president and CEO of Interim Storage Partners.
In May, commission staff members recommended the approval of the license in their draft environmental impact report, which also found that the plan would cause small or moderate impacts on public health and air quality, among other issues.
Texans have until Nov. 3 to submit online public comments on the report, which may be the last chance that the public has to voice opposition or support for the application.
Karen Hadden, the director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, said the lack of a national nuclear repository has made it difficult for the industry to move forward with responsible waste disposal. The high-level waste brought to Andrews might never be moved to a repository and stay in Texas permanently, she added.
“They’re trying this Band-Aid approach with consolidated interim storage, and the only thing it does is create more dump sites,” Hadden said. “You move it across the country at huge risk to everyone in major cities across the country. It could go right through downtown areas, right by hospitals and schools and stadiums and industries.”
Official routes for the Andrews facility will not be approved by the commission or the U.S. Department of Transportation until at least 2022, but the SEED Coalition is using finalized maps from the failed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository proposal in Nevada, which included commercial rail lines, as a guide.
Isakson, the Interim Storage Partners CEO, said his company does not expect the transfer of nuclear materials to have any effect on people who live, work and drive along the routes to the Andrews facility. Used nuclear fuel pellets are contained inside metal rods sealed inside a welded-shut steel canister, which is then sealed inside a thick, shielded transport cask, he said.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also states that the spent fuel transport packages must withstand accident conditions and pass impact, puncture, fire and water immersion tests in sequence. The tests include a 30-foot drop and surviving a fire for 30 minutes.
“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.”
The existing transfer of nuclear materials around the U.S., including to the Pantex plant near Amarillo and the Comanche Peak nuclear energy facility in Glen Rose, is also encouraging to Isakson. In more than 50 years of transporting used nuclear fuel in the U.S., there has not been a “single accident that resulted in harmful exposure to either people or the environment,” Isakson said.
Those reassurances ring hollow to Hadden and Burnam, who contend that the scale of Interim Storage Partners’ plans to transfer high-level nuclear waste from across 44 states is unprecedented. Hadden worries about accidents that could take place along the railway system, nuclear waste convoys being targeted for terrorist attacks and delays that could keep radioactive materials in one spot for more than a day.
“We’re talking over 10,000 shipments,” Hadden said. “This is massive and it’s never been done before. The nuclear industry always says: ‘We move this stuff around all the time.’ Not on this scale, never like this.”
Burnam also noted the unique set of allies and interest groups opposed to the Andrews facility’s plans, which includes some Permian Basin oil and gas company leaders who fear that radiation leaks could halt oil production. The unlikely collaborators also worry about who would be left to pay for cleanup costs if a radiation spill were to occur: taxpayers or the companies themselves, Burnam said.
In a 2019 letter to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gov. Greg Abbott also stated his opposition to “any increase in the amount or concentration of radioactivity authorized for disposal” at the Interim Storage Partners facility.
Still, many residents and county leaders in West Texas say that the increased amount of nuclear waste coming to Andrews could help the local economy. Andrews County and the state receive 5% of gross revenue from waste disposal activity, and the nuclear companies themselves have donated millions to a local food pantry, new ambulances and more, according to Marfa Public Radio.
The next step will come when the commission releases its final environmental impact statement in May 2021, along with a safety evaluation report on Interim Storage Partners’ application. Burnam is not optimistic that their activism efforts will prevent the license from being granted to the Andrews facility, but there are many more steps before the company moves forward with accepting high-level waste, he said.
In the meantime, Susybelle Gosslee, a Dallas-based activist who has worked with Burnam and Hadden in her role as the issue chair for hazardous materials and nuclear waste with the League of Women Voters of Texas, remains steadfast in her opposition to the Andrews facility expansion. One horrible accident — a radiation leak, an earthquake or some other malfunction — could lead to disastrous consequences, she said.
“I hesitate to use alarmist types of language but, actually, this is an alarming issue,” Gosslee said. “The public needs to be informed, not only about the financial but also the health and environmental issues because we don’t need to have another emergency like has happened in other areas of the world. We need to protect our citizens, and our citizens can’t protect themselves if they’re not even informed.”
Barrels of nuclear waste are prepared for disposal at Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, Jan. 13, 2014. Space inside the disposal site goes for $10,000 a cubic foot in some cases, making it possibly the most valuable hole in the ground in America. (Michael Stravato/The New York Times) NYT
Haley Samsel is a Report for America corps member reporting on environmental issues caused by economic growth for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her position is partly supported by a grant from the Anita Berry Martin Memorial Fund at North Texas Community Foundation. Samsel, a Plano native, graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., where she served as the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Eagle, and interned for news organizations like The Texas Tribune and NPR.