The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on 13 September granted a licence to Interim Storage Partners (ISP) to build and operate a a consolidated interim storage facility for used nuclear fuel in Andrews, Texas. The decision is causing tension with state officials in Texas, where opposition to nuclear waste storage has been increasing.
The licence authorises ISP to receive, possess, transfer and store up to 5000 metric tons of used fuel and 231.3 metric tons of Greater-Than-Class C low-level waste for 40 years. ISP has said it plans to expand the facility in seven additional phases, up to a total capacity of 40,000 metric tons of fuel. Each expansion would require a licence amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews.
ISP is a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists (WCS) and Orano USA. It intends to construct the storage facility on property adjacent to the WCS low-level radioactive waste disposal site already operating under a Texas licence. WCS applied for the licence in 2015.
NRC said the used fuel and waste must be stored in canisters and cask systems, which meet NRC standards for protection against leakage, radiation dose rates, and criticality, under normal and accident conditions. The canisters are required to be sealed when they arrive at the facility, and remain sealed during onsite handling and storage. NRC’s review of the licence application included a technical safety and security review, an environmental impact review and adjudication before an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. A safety evaluation report, documenting the technical review, is being issued along with the licence. A final environmental impact statement was published in July. The environmental study included extensive public input during its development and during the comment phase.
This is the second licence issued by the NRC for a consolidated storage facility for used nuclear fuel. The first, Private Fuel Storage, was issued in 2006 for temporary used fuel storage in Utah, but the facility was never constructed. NRC is reviewing an application from Holtec International for a similar facility proposed for Lea County, New Mexico. A decision on that application is currently expected in January 2022.
On 9 September, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law that seeks to prohibit the storage or transportation through the state of high-level nuclear waste such as used fuel rods. “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground,” he tweeted.
The Texas Senate had approved House Bill unanimously and the bill cleared the House by a 119-3 margin on 2 September, revealing strong bipartisan agreement in the Texas Legislature. Environmental groups including the Sierra Club have also filed federal lawsuits to block the storage, arguing that the discovery of groundwater under the site makes it unsafe.
The Andrews County site is about 350 miles (563.27km) west of Dallas, near the Texas-New Mexico border. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state’s congressional delegation are fighting Holtec’s proposal to build a facility in Lea County. They say technical analysis of that site has been inadequate. New Mexico officials argue that the waste will be stranded in their state because the federal government has failed to find a permanent disposal site.
In the 1980s, the Department of Energy (DOE) and Congress approved construction of a permanent, deep underground burial site at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. State officials fought the project for years, however, and, although construction had begun, Congress eliminated funding for it in 2011.
“We have opposition to this project on every level,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of Austin-based environmental group the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development (SEED) Coalition. “We do not consider this fight over. We will continue to battle these dangerous plans.” The Andrews County Commissioners’ Court, which functions as the county’s board of commissioners, had previously backed the plan as a means of diversifying the area’s fortunes from the boom and bust of oil cycles. But it reversed course earlier this year and voted unanimously to oppose the project.
Texas State Representative Brooks Landgraf, sho sponsored the bill banning the storage, noted: “If the NRC wants to push this as a federal vs. state issue, I think that’s something we can expect, but I think the NRC and the Biden administration can expect a fightback.”