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Texas Lawmakers Block Nuke Waste Plan, But Feds Could Still Move It Forward

Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Protesters in Midland inflate a mock spent nuclear fuel cask to show the size of the containers that may be brought by train or to Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews County.

Opponents of a plan to ship some of the nation’s most dangerous types of nuclear waste to a rural corner of West Texas are celebrating a win, at least for now.

Texas lawmakers last week gave final approval to House Bill 7, which will block a proposal from a company called Interim Storage Partners to ship the nation’s “high-level” radioactive waste - mostly material stemming from used nuclear power plant fuel - to a storage site on the Texas-New Mexico border.

The bill is expected to become law after Gov. Greg Abbott, who has spoken out against the West Texas plan, specifically instructed lawmakers to pass legislation  limiting high-level waste storage and transportation within the state.

Still, the company’s plan is largely a federal matter, and U.S. regulators could allow it to move forward as early as this month, setting up yet another battle between Texas and the Biden administration.

“There is a likelihood that this could shift to the courts,” one of the bill’s authors, State Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) said after the bill’s initial passage out of the House.

An unusual alliance of environmental groups and oil interests have fought the nuke waste plan for years, arguing it would pose safety risks to communities across the state and that an accident could jeopardize the West Texas oil economy. The company has maintained its plan is safe and necessary to address the nation’s problem of having nowhere to put the ever-growing amount of waste generated at nuclear power plants.

Opposition advocates, echoing Landgraf, say they expect the courts to get involved if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the company a federal license to bring the waste to Texas.

“We fully expect that parts of the bill will face legal challenges,” said Adrian Shelley, who leads the Texas chapter of Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group.

Shelley said the company or the Biden administration could seek “federal preemption” and ask the courts to block the Texas law because it interferes with a federal matter. Advocates tried and failed to get language added to the bill that would address that issue, he said.

“We are happy that the ban has been passed, but there’s a real open question about whether it will withstand the legal challenges that are to come,” Shelley said.

Interim Storage Partners has not commented on the bill’s passage.

Karen Hadden, head of the opposition group SEED Coalition, said she’s hopeful about the new law but remains worried about potential “loopholes.” 

The measure instructs state environmental regulators to deny state-level permits for any high-level waste storage site, but Hadden worries Interim Storage Partners might be able to move forward with permits it already has. One of the company’s related entities, Waste Control Specialists, has operated a lower-level nuclear waste site in Andrews County for years.

“Hopefully this bill will have enough teeth,” Hadden said. “I think it’s more of a strong political statement that this is not something we want here in Texas.”

As to the broader political equation, President Biden has so far not directly addressed the West Texas nuclear waste plan.

Rep. Landgraf said the new Texas law will send a “strong message” to the administration and federal regulators.

“The federal government has, at least up to this point, been very reluctant to store high-level radioactive waste in a state against that state’s will,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the agency continues to review the waste company’s license application “according to the applicable federal statutes and regulations.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.