Several Texas organizations gathered in Houston on Tuesday to kick off their “Protect Texas from Radioactive Waste Tour,” the beginning of a renewed push to block a proposal to transport used nuclear fuel by train through Texas and store it in West Texas.
The tour's organizers said they want to make people aware of the "high risk" implications of a proposal to build and operate a facility for 40,000 metric tons of irradiated fuel rods at an existing site in Andrews County.
If approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the project by Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, would transport nuclear waste from around the country to the consolidated site in Texas and store it until a long-term storage site becomes available, according to the venture's website.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in an August letter it would begin reviewing Interim Storage Partners' license application and that its safety, security and environmental reviews of the proposal could conclude as early as August 2020.
Karen Hadden, the executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, told The Texas Tribune that announcement triggered renewed opposition to the project and is one of the reasons for the tour.
The organizations involved — the Coalition of Community Organizations, Nuclear Information and Resource Services, Beyond Nuclear, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition and Public Citizen — held a news conference by a railroad crossing in Houston, said Tom Smith, the special projects director of consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen. Smith, who helped organize the tour, said in an interview with the Tribune that the news conference featured a 16-foot railroad container meant to replicate the transport cask that Interim Storage Partners would use to transport used nuclear fuel.
“We’re by the railroad tracks because we’re emphasizing that Texas businesses, hospitals and schools by the railroads are at high risk,” Hadden said. “It’s a bad idea to bring [nuclear waste] from around the country into Texas.”
The organizations instead want the used nuclear material to be kept at reactor sites in sturdier containers until a permanent storage site becomes available.
Smith said the proposed project presents a number of risks. A railroad accident would be disastrous, he said, because it could expose the public to harmful radiation and could cost municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.
He also said nuclear waste on railcars running through densely populated areas like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio is at "high risk of terrorist sabotage."
Interim Storage Partners did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the tour, but on its website, it emphasizes the safety of its operations.
“Since 1965, more than 2,700 shipments of used fuel have been safely transported nearly 2 million miles across the United States — and there has never been a radiological release caused by a transportation accident,” Interim Storage Partners' website said.
The website adds that “the transport cask surrounding the canister is specifically engineered with multiple barriers, including containment boundary, structural shell, gamma shielding material, and solid neutron shield,” and that the canister is sealed in thick-walled concrete when it arrives at the storage facility.
Smith said that after the news conference, the organizations planned to ask the Houston City Council to adopt a resolution against the proposed transportation of the nuclear material. He added that commissioners in San Antonio and Midland have already adopted similar resolutions.
“We’re trying to raise awareness because a lot of people don’t know this is planned,” Hadden said. She also said she hopes the tour will encourage people to submit comments on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's website before the Oct. 19 deadline.
Smith and Hadden said they have gone on nuclear waste tours before, one in West Texas last year and another this year for a separate proposed nuclear site in New Mexico. Over the next week, the current tour will continue at outdoor locations near railroads in San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso, Midland and Andrews, Smith said.
Interim Storage Partners' license application, which proposes a 40-year lease, is the second filed by the company. The first was submitted in April 2016, but its review was halted after Waste Control Specialists struggled to find the funds needed to continue with the application.
“We look forward to an energized and timely process and continuing to provide high-quality responses to any NRC requests for additional information,” Interim Storage Partners said in a written statement last month.
Federal lawmakers are mulling an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 that could accelerate the development of nuclear material storage sites. The amendment would require the Department of Energy to start its own program “to consolidate and temporarily store commercial spent nuclear fuel during the development, construction, and operation of a permanent nuclear waste repository.”