Federal officials have cleared the way for construction of a dump in West Texas that could hold spent nuclear fuel for up to 40 years.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a license to Interim Storage Partners LLC to build and run a facility that could take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and 231 million tons of other radioactive waste.
The decision puts the federal agency on a collision course with state officials in Texas, where opposition to nuclear waste storage has been building for years.
Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that purports to prohibit the storage or transportation of high-level nuclear waste such as spent fuel rods through the state.
“Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground,” Abbott tweeted on Tuesday.
Environmental groups including the Sierra Club have filed federal lawsuits to block the project, arguing that the discovery of groundwater under the site makes it unsafe to store radioactive waste there.
Interim Storage Partners plan to build the facility next to an existing dump site in Andrews County for low-level waste such as protective clothing and other material that has been exposed to radioactivity. The company plans to expand the interim facility in seven phases to take up to 40,000 tons of high-level waste, which would be stored in sealed containers. Each expansion would require NRC review and approval.
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The company is a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists LLC, which was started by the late Dallas billionaire investor Harold Simmons and later bought by private equity firm J.F. Lehman & Co., and Orano USA. Waste Control Specialists applied for the license in 2015.
The Andrews County site is about 350 miles west of Dallas, near the Texas-New Mexico state line.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state’s congressional delegation are fighting a proposal by Holtec International to build a similar temporary nuclear waste facility in Lea County. They say technical analysis of the site has been inadequate.
New Mexico officials fear that the waste will be stranded in their state because the federal government has failed over a period of decades to find a permanent disposal site. Instead, highly radioactive waste is piling up at dozens of reactors around the country.
In 2006, the NRC approved a proposal for a temporary dump for spent fuel in Utah, but the facility was never built.
Going back to the 1980s, the Energy Department and Congress approved building a permanent, deep underground burial site in southern Nevada. State officials fought the project for years, however, and Congress eliminated funding for it in 2011 while Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, was Senate majority leader.