Federal regulators will begin a series of public meetings this month after formally accepting Waste Control Specialists’ application last week to begin storing spent nuclear fuel at a dump in Andrews County.
The approval was expected — WCS notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nearly two years ago of the company’s plans before filing the application in April. But the detailed review the NRC will now begin comes at a time when the company is poised to gain an ally in former Gov. Rick Perry, who awaits confirmation as energy secretary.
WCS is seeking to store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors throughout the U.S. That would potentially increase to 40,000 metric tons over the 40 year temporary storage permit.
The company’s goal is to break ground in 2020.
The NRC set a target of late 2019 for making a licensing decision. That review will follow two tracks, one focused on safety and the other on environmental issues, according to a statement from the NRC.
The first public meeting in Andrews, where the local government supports the plan, will be Feb. 15.
“It’s all coming together,” spokesman Chuck McDonald said, saying the company was encouraged by the NRC’s handling of the license application and a DOE request in the fall for recommendations from private companies wanting to store nuclear waste. The DOE said such private facilities “represent a potentially promising alternative to federal facilities for consolidated interim storage.”
“It’s a long process, but those two critical steps are in process now,” McDonald said.
The NRC is a licensing authority technically independent of the Department of Energy, which President Trump tapped Perry to lead. But the DOE oversees management of nuclear waste storage, and the agency would be the sole customer of WCS if its licensing application is granted. In his new role, Perry could direct utilities to ship the spent nuclear fuel to WCS.
“We are encouraged by the fact that Gov. Perry is familiar with what is taking place in Andrews,” McDonald said. “While he was governor, he took steps to address a problem that no one else in the country was able to address. He’s got a record of addressing the issue and we think that’s all positive.”
It was during Perry’s tenure that the state passed legislation approving the low-level radioactive waste facility WCS operates. And the late owner of the company, Harold Simmons, was one of Perry’s top donors.
The project is driven by a lack of a permanent disposal site after Congress in 2010 nixed funding for the proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Today, spent fuel is kept at nuclear reactors, while the federal government continues to take in money from utilities into a multi-billion dollar fund for a permanent disposal site.
Several environmental groups oppose the plan to store the high-level waste in Andrews, instead arguing it should remain stored at nuclear reactors.
“Rather than store this radioactive waste on an exposed parking lot in West Texas, it should remain at the power plant where it was generated or nearby until a scientifically viable isolation system for permanent disposal can be designed and built,” said Karen Hadden, the director of the the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition.
Hadden argued storing high level waste in Andrews County would threaten the underlying aquifer.
But even before WCS notified the NRC of the company’s intent to apply to store high-level nuclear waste, Andrews County commissioners passed a resolution in support of the plan.
In 2009, Andrews County voters approved by a razor-thin margin a $75 million bond to help WCS build the low-level radioactive waste disposal site. But the proposal to store the high-level waste would not require such a vote with WCS not seeking financial help from the county.
To date, the county has received more than $ 8 million in direct payments from disposal fees for the low-level waste that WCS buried at the site in the rural county since opening in 2012, according to figures provided by the company.
But WCS still operates at a loss.
“We are not receiving the amount of shipments that we have anticipated,” McDonald said. “It’s showing steady improvement, but it’s not profitable yet.”
Winning approval to build an interim disposal site for high-level nuclear waste could mean a windfall of billions of dollars. Andrews County and the State of Texas would share in that windfall.
A WCS competitor has also filed a letter of intent to open an interim storage facility in Lea County, N.M.
Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas office argued that transporting high-level nuclear was by rail is dangerous.
The waste would be shipped by train because of its heavy weight. The spent fuel would already be sealed in canisters before it is shipped, limiting handling to moving canisters from transportation to storage casks, according to the NRC.
“Radioactive waste has been safely transported in the United States for 50 years now, quite often by rail,” McDonald said. “And there has never been a single accident that resulted in the release of any radioactive materials."
Before making a licensing decision, the NRC will produce a report evaluating safety and an environmental impact study. And interested parties can challenge the commission’s findings.
“If the application meets our regulations, we’re legally bound to issue a license,” Mark Lombard, the NRC’s director of the division of spent fuel management wrote in an April blog post. “We don’t consider whether there’s a need for the facility or whether we think it’s a good idea.”