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Feds Approve West Texas Nuke Waste Plan, Despite State Law Blocking It

Waste Control Specialists
A view of an existing nuclear waste storage site in rural Andrews County, Texas. The site’s owners want to expand the facility to house more radioactive types of radioactive waste.

Federal regulators on Monday allowed a company to move forward with its plan to ship some of the nation’s most dangerous types of nuclear waste to a site in West Texas, even though Texas lawmakers recently blocked the plan at the state level.

The plan in question is from a company called Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture that includes the operator of an existing facility in rural Andrews County where less radioactive types of waste have been stored for years.

On Monday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a federal license allowing the company to expand the facility to house an initial 5,000 metric tons of “high-level” nuclear waste that would be shipped to West Texas from the nation’s nuclear power plants. 

But just last week, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law aimed at stopping that from happening.

After an earlier failed attempt, state lawmakers in the most recent legislative session passed a law banning the storage or disposal of high-level nuclear waste within the state. The measure includes an exception for waste at current or former Texas nuclear plants.

An unusual alliance of environmental groups and oil interests has for years raised concerns about the safety risks of transporting the waste to West Texas and the potential for an accident to jeopardize the state’s oil-dependent 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.

Monday’s decision didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Many had expected the NRC to approve the company’s plan after a favorable environmental review, and opponents have been bracing for legal battles over the new Texas law.

“We fully expect that parts of the bill will face legal challenges,” Adrian Shelley, Texas director for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, previously told Marfa Public Radio.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the federal license decision, nor did Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office. The governor has spoken out against both the Texas nuclear waste plan and a similar, rival proposal from a company just over the state line in New Mexico.

The NRC continues to review the separate New Mexico proposal, a spokesperson for the commission said, with a final decision expected in January.

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