US court cancels Texas nuclear waste storage permit

29 August 2023

A US appeals court has cancelled a licence granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to a company planning construction of a temporary nuclear waste storage facility in Andrews County, western Texas. The New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals found that NRC lacked the authority under federal law to issue permits for private, temporary nuclear waste storage sites.

The licence, issued in 2021 to Interim Storage Partners, had been challenged by Texas as well as west Texas oil and gas interests. Interim Storage Partners is a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists and Orano CIS, a subsidiary of Orano USA.

Circuit Judge James Ho agreed with Texas that the Atomic Energy Act does not give the agency the broad authority "to license a private, away-from-reactor storage facility for spent nuclear fuel”.

He added that a licence for that kind of a facility also conflicts with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which prioritises permanent storage solutions permitting temporary storage of nuclear waste only at NPP or federal sites.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and other state officials had petitioned the court in 2021 to review NRC’s order authorising Interim Storage Partners to receive and store up to 5,000 tonnes of used fuel and about 230 tonnes of low-level radioactive waste for 40 years at the planned repository. 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 have been similarly fighting a proposal by Holtec International to build a facility in Lea County. However, in July, Holtec received the final licence from the NRC for construction and operation of the facility, which is intended to temporarily store nuclear waste from NPPs across the USA.

NRC issued the licence despite strong opposition the passage of a new law in New Mexico that seeks to block the facility by requiring a federal permanent repository to be in operation before any nuclear waste can be stored. State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said in a press statement: “Placing a nuclear storage facility in the heart of oil and gas operations is a recipe for ecological disaster and unnecessarily puts New Mexicans at risk.” There are some 2,500 oil, gas or mineral extraction sites operated by 54 different entities within 10 miles of the site where Holtec plans to build the facility.

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.

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