Tensions reignite over West Texas nuclear waste storage

NRG Energy Inc. Vice President Nuclear Oversight, James von Suskil speaks during a scheduled refueling outage on Unit 2 at the South Texas Project nuclear power facility Thursday, April 2, 2015, in Wadsworth. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle )
The South Texas Project nuclear power facility in Wadsworth last year. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle )

The years long fight over whether to build a nuclear waste storage facility in West Texas has touched off again over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to move ahead on the review process.

Earlier this month the federal government’s top-nuclear division wrote a letter to Waste Control Specialists, the Dallas-based company developing the waste facility, informing them that the agency would be beginning its environmental review of the project even though the company’s initial application remained incomplete.

“By starting the EIS process now, the NRC will be able to engage interested members of the public earlier and accord the public additional time to review the WCS license application,” the letter reads.

That prompted four environmental groups to write the NRC Wednesday, arguing it should dismiss the application because Congress never intended for a privately-owned facility to take possession of nuclear waste when it passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982.

The facility proposed by Waste Control Specialists would be located in Andrews County, northwest of Midland on the Texas-New Mexico border. It would initially store 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel though has raised the prospect of increasing that volume to 40,000 metric tons – more than half the total waste from nuclear plants in this country.

In its letter October 7, the NRC said, “This decision, however, does not presuppose the outcome of NRC’s ongoing acceptance review of the WCS application.”

But coupled with comments made by U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month that the government was interested in exploring private storage facilities as an interim solution for nuclear waste, environmentalists in Texas fear that the Andrews County facility might very well come to pass.

“They are bending over backwards to move the application by starting the EIS process without a completed application,” Tom Smith, Texas director of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said of the NRC in an email.

A public relations firm listed at representing Waste Control Specialists did not respond to a request for comment.

The question of what to do with the more than 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently stored at U.S. nuclear plants has mired politics in Washington for decades.

In 2002 Congress authorized the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada to serve as a national repository for nuclear waste, but following backlash from Nevada politicians funding for that project has since stalled.

But a decision on a West Texas facility is some ways off. The environmental review process alone typically takes between two and a half and three years and can stretch longer if it is challenged, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said.