Nominating Rick Perry to run a federal agency that he couldn’t name on live television was an improbable godsend to comedians — and to a Texas nuclear waste dump. The former Texas governor may now be ideally positioned to service a top beneficiary of his gubernatorial cronyism.
During his 14 years as governor, Perry repeatedly awarded state appointments, economic development funds and even state cancer-research grants to major political supporters. Few received more assistance than Waste Control Specialists, LLC, owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Simmons was the No. 2 individual donor to Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns, with contributions totaling $1.2 million.
Perry’s administration seemed to reciprocate. In 2008 and 2009, his Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) appointees granted Waste Control two licenses to handle radioactive waste. One allowed Waste Control to take 3,776 canisters of radioactive residues from NL Industries, a Department of Energy contractor that Simmons also owned. The second one gave the company the authority to bury a wide variety of state and federal radioactive waste. The company’s planned West Texas dump in Andrews County was so dangerously close to nearby aquifers that three state employees reviewing the application resigned.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry would seem to exceed Harold Simmons’ wildest dreams. Because — for all of Governor Perry’s hustling on its behalf — Waste Control still operates at a loss. A game-changer would be to strike deals for some of the high-level nuclear waste that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to unload after the 2012 collapse of its $15 billion scheme to bury it at a federal site inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
The department that Perry wanted to abolish is a sprawling behemoth with a $28 billion budget and 13,000 employees. DOE oversees the design, testing, production and dismantling of the nation’s nuclear arsenal. And it plays a major role in disposing of nuclear waste produced by the military and nuclear power plants. A week after Perry’s confirmation hearing, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified that Waste Control had formally completed an application for a high-level nuclear waste license first submitted the year before. If granted, the license would allow Waste Control to store 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel waste from power plants for 40 years. The company has plans to expand the license to 40,000 metric tons. That’s enough to take more than half of the high-level nuclear waste that the nation’s nuclear power plants have generated.
However, Waste Control’s high-level waste scheme faces a major hurdle. Nuclear utilities do not want to assume liability for high-level nuclear waste in transit to a dump. And Waste Control President Rod Baltzer has said he wants DOE to assume liability for any of that waste parked at his site. While DOE is legally responsible for high-level waste when it arrives at a permanent repository, plans for a permanent site died at Yucca Mountain. Waste Control’s plans appear to need a congressional fix that would allow the government to park high-level waste at a temporary site.
“The role of DOE could be to influence changing the law and indications point to Perry being more than willing to have his [Waste Control] friends shift liability and make whatever changes are necessary to support the company,” said Diane D’Arrigo, a waste watchdog at the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Center. “I think that it’s a pretty clear conflict of interest for Perry to be in this role.”
Waste Control spokesperson Chuck McDonald expressed another view. “We obviously think that Mr. Perry has a lot of experience,” he said, “and that Texas is one of the few states that have dealt with the nuclear waste problem.”
Little at Perry’s January 19 confirmation hearing seemed to preclude a congressional fix. Though Senator Bernie Sanders lectured Perry over his past denials of climate-change science, many senators focused on pork-barrel politics, inviting the nominee to visit marvelous DOE facilities in their home states. By contrast, those senators who discussed nuclear waste disposal in any level of detail mostly seemed to want to dump it outside their own borders.
After the Yucca Mountain debacle, the DOE concluded that it can get burned trying to dump high-level waste at government sites in hostile communities. Its emerging consensus is to park that waste at a private facility in the rare community that actually welcomes the stuff. Waste Control’s website features an article on the 2016 Senate testimony of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He testified that Waste Control’s federal application for high-level nuclear waste dovetailed with the Obama administration’s view that the host community and state should “consent” to taking waste. Anything passing for that kind of radioactive consent of the governed is hard to find outside Andrews County, Texas.
Radioactive waste is a concentrated industry. Just three other low-level nuclear waste dumps operate in the county. US Ecology, Inc. runs one in Washington State and EnergySolutions, Inc. runs one in South Carolina and one in Utah. In 2015, EnergySolutions proposed a $367 million acquisition of Waste Control. A week after Trump’s election, the Obama administration filed an antitrust lawsuit to block that merger. The acquisition “would make EnergySolutions the only option for customers in nearly 40 states,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse said in a statement. “This at a time when [nuclear waste-disposal] projects worth billions of dollars are set to be awarded in the coming years.”
University of Texas Law School professor and antitrust expert Abraham Wickelgren said that whoever Trump picks to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division will have discretion “to decide whether or not to pursue the case.” With Republican majorities in Congress and a cabinet full of dealmakers such as Perry, the Trump administration just might light up the night skies of West Texas.