Pandemic Allows for New Front in Fight Against Southwest Nuclear Waste Storage Contracts

Activists, industry, lawmakers push for delays to interim spent fuel storage facilities planned in Texas, New Mexico
A view of Yucca Mountain on Feb. 7, 2002. Environmental activists, lawmakers and oil and gas industry leaders are pushing back on Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to create facilities in Texas and New Mexico to serve as temporary repositories for high-level nuclear waste from all over the country. (David McNew/Getty Images)
July 10, 2020 at 2:26 pm UTC

Two proposals to send high-level spent nuclear fuel to sites in Texas and New Mexico are seeing renewed opposition as environmental activists, the oil and gas industry and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have formed an unlikely and informal alliance leveraging the pandemic as a reason to delay. 

The proposed Texas and New Mexico facilities — which are licensed by Interim Storage Partners LLC (a joint venture of Orano USA and Waste Control Specialists) and Holtec International, respectively — have applications under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for consolidated interim storage facilities intended to serve as temporary repositories for high-level nuclear waste from all over the country. 

The ISP facility already stores low-level waste, but the proposals would expand its license to store high-level waste, which is exponentially more radioactive, for at least 40 years. The Holtec facility would be built on undeveloped land; both facilities are located in the Permian Basin, home to more than 7,000 oil and gas fields.

While most of the country’s more than 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is stored where it is generated, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act amendments of 1987 mandated that the country use Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as its only permanent nuclear waste repository. But since the Obama administration scrapped those plans for Yucca in 2009, the United States has not had a long-term destination for the radioactive waste produced by its nuclear energy facilities.

Unlikely agreement

Now, the proposals for these two interim alternatives are eliciting pushback of their own, especially in light of the coronavirus. The pandemic has brought renewed vigor to the fight by both environmental activists and the oil and gas industry, all of whom are concerned about the inability of local stakeholders to sufficiently review and weigh in on the current proposals and statements. 

“Just look at what's happened in Texas today: COVID numbers are just going through the roof,” said Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for the family-owned Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd. in Midland, Texas. “It's just hard enough to keep your businesses afloat; we need a lot more time to be able to respond effectively and say what we need to say.”

Taylor’s primary concern is about the potential damage that an accident involving nuclear waste could cause for the industry’s Permian Basin resources, as well as the health effects for those working and living in close proximity to the waste. Fasken is among a coalition of Permian Basin landowners and operators coordinating a resistance to the plan to bring high-level nuclear waste to the region. 

“We’re not against nuclear energy,” he clarified. “But if you had to do interim storage in the U.S., there are a lot of better areas to put it than in the middle of our energy security blanket. It really tees it up for something bad to happen.”   

Karen Hadden, executive director of the Austin, Texas-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, has been vocal for years on the issue of nuclear waste and told Morning Consult the proposals are “environmental justice of the largest magnitude imaginable.”

“They’re building a nuclear empire in West Texas,” Hadden said. “The communities do not have the resources to fight back.”

The ISP facility would be located in Andrews County, a largely Hispanic region of Texas where Hadden said language and technology barriers have compromised the community’s ability to stay informed about the proposal -- issues that she said have been “compounded” by the pandemic. And the Holtec facility, which would be located just across the state border in New Mexico’s Lea County, has elicited concern from Native American communities in the region because of the likelihood that nuclear waste would have to pass through tribal land, including Navajo Nation.

Jeff Isakson, chief executive of ISP, said that the proposed storage systems “have securely stored used nuclear fuel at sites all over the country for many decades” and have “maintained their sealed integrity through large earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.”

Joe Delmar, senior director of government affairs and communications for Holtec International, said the company’s “commitment to protecting public health and safety and preserving the environment” would be “paramount” throughout the life of its proposed facility, which would use a system “designed to resist natural and manmade events like fire, earthquakes, projectiles, tornados, floods and other extremes.”

A push for delays

The proposals’ respective draft environmental impact statements are currently open for public comment; ISP’s 120-day comment period ends Sept. 4, while Holtec’s 180-day period concludes Sept. 22. Holtec’s was initially just 60 days, but has been extended twice, which NRC Public Affairs Officer David McIntyre said is due to “the effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

The NRC has held two webinars for public comment on the Holtec project, with the latest eliciting strong reactions from local Indigenous groups. McIntyre said the agency hopes to schedule a webinar for the ISP project soon, and that “decisions on in-person meetings in New Mexico and Texas will be made later, and will depend on our assessment of the public health emergencies in each state.”

But both legislators and activists have seen these attempts at engagement as insufficient and are asking for delays of months, if not years. 

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) represents a region of the state through which the waste is likely to pass, and he sent a letter to NRC leaders June 16 requesting that the agency hold in-person public meetings in six different Texas locations regarding the draft environmental impact statement. He asked that the agency schedule the hearings “at least six months after the COVID-19 risks are fully resolved and extend the comment period deadline as well.” 

“The pandemic threatens our families now; nuclear waste could endanger us forever,” Doggett told Morning Consult via email. “It’s essential that the NRC not act prematurely when we are preoccupied with the immediate threat of a pandemic greatly worsened by failures of national and state leadership.”

Asked if the agency intends to honor the lawmaker’s request, McIntyre said the request is under consideration and he “would expect a response to him and an announcement about the comment period to be forthcoming soon.”

Hadden’s SEED is among the 60 organizations that submitted a July 8 letter asking the NRC to “indefinitely” prolong the comment periods for both the ISP and Holtec draft environmental impact statements, as well as to convene public meetings at sites along the planned nuclear waste transport routes. 

ISP’s Isakson, meanwhile, said that these extensions are unnecessary and that the existing online public meetings “provide ample additional opportunity for public engagement and completion of the licensing review requirements.” Holtec’s Delmar broadly concurs, saying “a further extension is unlikely to yield any environmental consideration that the NRC staff hasn’t already identified.”

These more recent pushes to pause the endeavor until after the pandemic echo a March letter from New Mexico’s congressional delegation to the NRC, which highlighted concerns about the fuel’s transport, as well as about local agriculture and industry and disproportionate impacts of the proposal on Native American communities in the state. 

“I hope that the NRC will look at what these legislators are asking and really consider a significant delay,” Taylor said, “because I think they want to get this right, and it’s not going to be right just pushing it through during the pandemic.” 

Lisa Martine Jenkins previously worked at Morning Consult as a senior reporter covering energy and climate change.

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