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Will Texas become final resting place for high-level nuclear waste?

A controversial radioactive waste dump in far West Texas is one step closer to being able to accept high-level nuclear waste.

Large quantities of radioactive materials stored in a single location, like these at an oil well-logging storage site, are particularly vulnerable to theft for use in a dirty bomb, the Department of Energy and the Government Accountability Office determined in 2014, yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission still allows the practice.

A controversial radioactive waste dump in far West Texas is one step closer to being able to accept high-level nuclear waste.

After requesting additional information from Waste Control Specialists, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week agreed to review the Dallas-based company’s application to expand its 14,000-acre facility in Andrews County to store up to 5,000 metric tons uranium of spent nuclear fuel from power plants across the county. The commission on Thursday also announced two public meetings in the area next month to gather input on potential environmental impacts of the project, which watchdog and environmental groups say could be devastating.

“We are grateful to the agency for its efforts to scrub the application so thoroughly and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” Waste Control Specialists President and CEO Rod Baltzer said in a statement, estimating the company is “still on track to be ready to break ground on the facility in 2020.”

Since Waste Control Specialists opened its radioactive dump in 2012, it has accepted low-level nuclear and hazardous waste from shuttered nuclear reactors and hospitals, among other locations. (It is one of few low-level radioactive waste disposal sites in the United States.) In 2014, over the objection of environmental groups and a Democratic state lawmaker, Waste Control Specialists gained state permission to double the dump’s capacity and reduce its financial liability should it ever suddenly close up shop.

Last April, the company moved to expand the site again, submitting an application to the commission to store spent nuclear reactor fuel and other highly radioactive waste. The waste has been piling up at temporary storage facilities at operating and shuttered reactor sites around the country for decades, as Congress struggles to agree on a permanent disposal site. (Congress passed a law in 1987 law naming Yucca Mountain as the nation’s official repository for high-level radioactive waste, but Nevada’s congressional delegation — led by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat — has successfully thwarted the project.)

While Waste Control Specialists has pitched its expansion as an interim solution to the problem, many speculate — or worry — that it could become a permanent one if the company’s application is approved.

“Once it gets there, no one is ever going to want to move this stuff,” said Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, describing the material as “incredibly deadly.”

“This is the worst of the worst in the world of radioactivity,” she said.

The project also has a friend in former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom President Donald Trump picked to head the U.S. Department of Energy. The federal agency plays a major role in advancing and implementing policy on nuclear waste.

As governor, Perry publicly supported bringing high-level nuclear waste to Texas — something watchdog and environmental groups decried, pointing to a host of transportation, environmental and security risks. (They also noted that Waste Control Specialists had been owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who donated millions to Perry’s campaign.)

"I believe it is time for Texas to act, particularly since New Mexico is seeking to be federally designated for [high-level waste] disposal,” Perry wrote in a 2014 letter to his fellow state leaders. (A New Mexico group is expected to submit its own application to the commission early this year.) 

During Perry's confirmation hearing this month, he urged action on the issue. 

If Texas decided it would like to permanently store spent nuclear fuel, Congress would need to change that 1987 law naming Yucca Mountain as the nation’s repository for high-level radioactive waste. The U.S. House and Senate have been sharply divided on the issue, but Hadden noted that senators did not press Perry on the issue during his confirmation hearing.

He “said four times ‘consolidated storage’ and it was sort of like 'wink wink, nod nod,' and that means in Texas,” she said. “And everyone thought — great, you take it.”

The people who live near the proposed project site are largely poor and Hispanic, she noted. 

Critics of the project like Hadden say transporting highly radioactive material through densely populated areas will pose risks to residents of Texas and nearby New Mexico, and other regions of the country. The material could also be vulnerable in transit to accidents or attacks, exposing people and land to long-term radioactive poisoning. Ferrying the 70,000 metric tons and counting of accumulated waste would take 24 years and occur mostly by train, Hadden said. 

The site also sits a few miles away from the Ogallala Aquifer, the nation's largest aquifer, which spans eight states. 

The commission’s acceptance of Waste Control Specialists' application comes after months of delay and speculation.

Last June, two months after the company submitted its application, the commission requested more information from the company because “the level of detail” was “not adequate in certain sections,” according to Maureen Conley, a commission spokeswoman.

Waste Control Specialists has now provided that information, allowing the commission to begin a more thorough review of the application, she said. The review will cover both environmental and technical aspects of the project, with the commission expected to take public comment on the latter aspect at a later date. 

The commission will accept public comment on environmental aspects of the project through March 13.

Read more related coverage:

  • In November, the U.S. Justice Department sued to block a Salt Lake City-based company's acquisition of Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists. 
  • Rick Perry’s energy legacy is more complicated than you think.

Disclosure: The Harold Simmons Foundation has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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