A private equity-backed company got federal approval to store nuclear waste in Texas. The state is fighting back.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a visit to the border wall near Pharr, Texas on June 30, 2021. - Former President Donald Trump visited the area with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to address the surge of unauthorized border crossings that they blame on the Biden administration's change in policies. (Photo by Sergio FLORES / AFP) (Photo by SERGIO FLORES/AFP via Getty Images) (SERGIO FLORES via Getty Images)
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A private company has won federal approval to build an expansive nuclear waste site in the Texas Panhandle, even as local residents, state lawmakers, environmentalists and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, rail against it.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Monday issued a license for Andrews, Tex.-based Interim Storage Partners to store as much as 5,000 metric tons of radioactive waste. It's one of two proposed storage sites - the other is in southeastern New Mexico - that has been under agency review for several years.

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The approval opens a new front in a decades-long battle to find a home for 85,000 tons of nuclear waste accumulating at dozens of nuclear power plants across the country. Fears about the dangers of nuclear material, which scientists say remains hazardous to humans for hundreds of years, have stifled plans to build repositories, including a proposed waste dump in Nevada's Yucca Mountain that was shelved by President Barack Obama.

Such concerns are fueling the opposition in Texas, where environmental activists have forged a rare alliance with oil interests and powerful state Republicans to prevent the site from moving forward. They worry that transporting and storing "high-level" nuclear waste, including contaminated fuel rods, exposes the state to the threat of a radiological incident or potential for groundwater contamination.

"Our concern is that the waste will sit there, the cement around it will crack, leaks will develop, and radioactive contamination will result," said Karen Hadden, the executive director of the SEED Coalition, an Austin-based advocacy group.

In a direct challenge to federal regulators, Abbott signed legislation last week preventing federally approved waste facilities from obtaining local construction and wastewater permits. The governor has framed the license as an unwelcome incursion by the Biden administration, which he accused of "trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste" in Texas oil fields.

"Texas will not become America's nuclear waste dumping ground," he tweeted Tuesday.

In a news release this week, the NRC said the proposal passed its extensive reviews for environmental impact, technical safety and security. The canisters that will contain the waste itself must also meet federal standards for protecting against leakage.

Interim Storage Partners said in a statement that the planned facility satisfies "all environmental, health, and safety requirements without negative impact to nearby residents or existing industries."

The idea of a temporary waste storage facility took root under Obama, who eliminated funding for Yucca Mountain and commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of experts to craft a new set of policies for the country's handling of nuclear waste. Among the recommendations in the panel's 2012 report were "consolidated interim storage facilities," where spent fuel could be stored while a permanent repository was being developed.

The report said that the location for such facilities should be chosen with the consent of the local community and that the businesses that operate them should be eligible for nuclear waste fee payments from the U.S. government.

In recent years, a few private companies have pitched themselves as nuclear cleanup specialists, offering to buy aging nuclear power plants, dismantle the reactors and ship the nuclear waste to remote storage locations in the American Southwest. Though the arrangement appeals to federal regulators in need of solutions for nuclear waste, it has drawn fierce opposition from environmental activists and public officials, who have expressed concerns about entrusting some of the earth's most toxic material to private companies.

The Texas waste site is a joint venture between the U.S. subsidiary of Orano, a French energy giant; and Waste Storage Specialists, a landfill company that was acquired by New York private equity firm J.F. Lehman in 2018. J.F. Lehman also owns NorthStar, a nuclear decommissioning firm that buys and dismantles old nuclear power plants, and has signaled its interest in shipping used nuclear material to the Texas storage facility.

The Texas site would store nuclear waste for up to 40 years, though there is no plan for what to do with the material afterward. The company said it will seek license amendments allowing it to store as much as 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel, or nearly half of the country's total current inventory, and could seek approval to extend its license for additional time.

The proposed site, in the oil-rich Permian Basin region of Texas, would be adjacent to an existing Waste Control Specialists facility that stores "low-level" radioactive items like contaminated gloves, shoes and medical tubes. It's one of the only sites in the country that accepts radioactive waste from other states.

Waste Control Specialists, originally a small hazmat business in Andrews County, was taken over by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons in the mid-1990s. Simmons died in 2013.

The company's state licenses to accept low-level waste were approved in 2007 and 2008 despite opposition from local environmental groups. Engineers and geologists from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resigned over the issuance of those licenses because they considered the Andrews site geologically unfit for radioactive waste disposal, according to local news reports.

Dave McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC, says the agency closely examined the site and "found it suitable, or we would not have issued the license."

The companies overseeing the proposed high-level storage site could earn large fees from the U.S. government, though the business model is uncertain. Due to a federal law which holds the government responsible for storing nuclear waste, the Energy Department makes annual payments to the companies that store it. In 2015, a Congressional Budget Office report said the department had already paid more than $5 billion to utility companies for storing waste and estimated such payments could eventually total $29 billion.

Regulators at the NRC are also reviewing a proposal by Holtec, a New Jersey-based manufacturer, to build a storage facility in southeastern New Mexico, less than 100 miles from the proposed Texas waste site. A decision on that application, which has been challenged by New Mexico state officials, could come as soon as January 2022, the NRC said.

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