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Speaker Joe Straus Opens the Door to ‘High-Level’ Radioactive Waste in Texas

by Published on
Waste Control Specialists site
Waste Control Specialists
WCS site

Even as a low-level radioactive waste dump grows in West Texas, lawmakers are pondering the possibility of making Texas the home to at least some of the nation’s immense stockpile of “high-level” radioactive waste. Speaker of the House Joe Straus charged the House Committee on Environmental Regulation with studying “the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas” and to make recommendations on how to permit a disposal or “interim storage facility.” Currently, the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants have nowhere to send their spent fuel rods, after Nevada’s controversial Yucca Mountain site was scuttled.

Environmentalists reacted to Straus’ directive with palpable anger.

“It’s idiotic to even consider disposing of high-level radioactive waste in Texas,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen. “Other states have rejected having high-level radioactive waste dumped on them. Texas shouldn’t even be talking about the possibility. It’s all risk and very little reward for Texans.”

It was not immediately clear if Straus has Waste Control Specialists’ dump site near Andrews, Texas, in mind or a different project. Notably, an Austin-based company is pursuing a plan to store high-level waste near Big Spring. Owned by Dallas GOP billionaire Harold Simmons, who died last year, Waste Control has long angled to become the nation’s one-stop site for radioactive and hazardous waste. Lubricated with Simmons’ political donations and high-powered lobbyists, the state of Texas has generally allowed Waste Control to keep expanding the dump, despite concerns that it lies perilously close to water tables.

But the company has been mum about plans, if any, for high-level waste. An email to company spokesman Chuck McDonald was not immediately returned.

However, an email obtained by the Observer shows that Waste Control has its eyes on new streams of radioactive waste currently banned by the state.

In October, a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staffer wrote to her superior, Bobby Janecka, that “WCS is presenting that they are going to request to dispose of greater than class c [radioactive waste]. … They are also saying they expect us to approve [depleted uranium] may 2014.”

(Notably, Janecka was chief of staff to state Rep. Tryon Lewis, the Republican who represents Andrews and has authored legislation that benefits Waste Control.)

Generally, low-level radioactive wastes are classified as Class A, B or C, with “C” being the most radioactive and long-lived. “Greater than Class C” waste is another grouping, encompassing the most dangerous of so-called low-level radioactive waste.

Depleted uranium is being generated in large quantities at a uranium enrichment plant next door to the Waste Control dump in Eunice, New Mexico. Both depleted uranium and Greater than Class C fall into a regulatory gray area between “low-level” and “high-level” radioactive waste. It appears that the interim charge is probably referring to spent nuclear fuel rods—the stuff once slated for Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The interim study charge could also apply to another proposed radioactive waste facility, one that’s been flying under the radar for some time. Austin-based AFCI Texas has been in talks with local, state and federal officials about building an “interim” storage facility near Big Spring for spent nuclear fuel. AFCI is co-owned by Bill Jones, a Rick Perry ally who serves on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department board.

Reached by phone today, AFCI co-owner Monty Humble, said he was surprised by the interim charge.

“It’s ironic you’re asking because I’m trying to figure out where the heck it came from too,” Humble said. “I’ll be truthful and say we’re intensely interested in the question but I have no idea where that charge came from.”

Humble said the interim charge is “broader” than what they’ve been proposing. AFCI said it’s only looking at storing high-level radioactive waste, not burying or disposing of it, though he wouldn’t rule that out either.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • 1bimbo

    i doubt these proposals will be approved by TCEQ

    • WUSRPH

      Dream on.

    • EnviroEngineer

      Whatever TCEQ decides, it will need to be technically defensible. If the site survives a rigorous risk assessment, why not use it?

      • 1bimbo

        …because too many times the gear-heads, politicians and civil servants come to the conclusion that the ‘benefit’ outweighs the ‘risk’. so down the road when worn old lines leak or corrode or there’s some kind of catastrophic weather or man-made event, we’re all ska-rewed like japan

        • EnviroEngineer

          Fair enough, though a proper risk assessment should take those future events into account, probabilistically. If we were talking about a pipeline, or a nuclear power plant, or such, then we would want to consider those risks, plus earthquakes and terrorist attacks. The consideration of such events should be part of any thorough risk assessment. In the case of Fukushima, they seemed to have recognized, but sadly underestimated, the risk posed by tsunami. That is an error in the risk assessment, and an oversight on the part of those charged with approving the risk assessment.

          In this case (intermediate depth disposal of radioactive waste in Andrews County), however, it is difficult to imagine such an event. There are not pipelines, and weather or even earthquakes do not affect the integrity of the site.

  • dan

    For those of you who don’t know, the salt beds on the Texas-New Mexico Border are some of the most geologically safe areas on the planet. The WIPP has been storing defense nuclear waste for 15 years now. You can irretrievably immerse anything in the salt beds for several hundred million years. Previous recommendations for the Deaf Smith county burials ignored the fact that there was an aquifer underneath.

    There are plenty of areas in West Texas not over an aquifer that have little population. Anyone who volunteers gets all the money in the nuclear waste disposal fund that Harry Reid hasn’t defrauded yet. Free roads, infrastructure and an influx of high paying engineering jobs. All at no risk to the environment, sounds like a good deal if you can around the politics.

    The fact they are talking about an interim facility shows that someone who at least knows the physics is helping with this. 95% of the waste consists of unspent uranium. Long term this could replace natural gas as it inevitably runs out. A reactor that burns all the uranium can power the entire planet for 5 billion years feasibly, a thorium reactor could use the nuclear waste as primer.

    • Comstock

      Physics notwithstanding, the evidence suggests an accident is more likely. If not natural causes then human error. The chance that West Texas becomes a nuclear wasteland is not worth the chance that Texas corners the market on a toxic substance, that in any case, can be produced on demand when the technology is ready.

      • dan

        What makes you think it will ever be a nuclear wasteland? The salt beds at WIPP leaked after a possible human induced collapse and with the HEPA filters the radiation releases were effectively nonexistent. At Yucca they spent billions on scientific studies, salt bed disposal has been intensively studied by the National Academy of Sciences since 1953. It can be done safely.
        As long as it is strongly technically defended, is safe and has support of the populace there is no reason not to do so.
        If I were in charge I would co-locate the unspent fuel with the plutonium nuclear warheads at the Pantex facility near Amarillo. Use a mix of fast/molten salt reactors to use as much of the warheads and waste as fuel, stick everything that’s left in salt beds.