WASHINGTON – Federal officials have paved the way for the construction of a landfill in West Texas that could contain spent nuclear fuel for up to 40 years.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted a license to Interim Storage Partners LLC to build and run a facility that could take up to 5,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods from power plants and 231 million tons of other radioactive waste .
The decision puts the federal agency on a collision course with state officials in Texas, where it has been opposed to nuclear waste storage for years.
Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that seeks to ban the storage or transportation of high-level nuclear waste, such as spent fuel rods across the state.
“Texas will not become the landfill of America’s nuclear waste dump,” Abbott posted Tuesday.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, have filed federal lawsuits to block the project, arguing that the discovery of groundwater under the site makes the storage of radioactive waste there unsafe.
Interim Storage Partners plans to build the facility next to an existing landfill in Andrews County for low-level waste, such as protective clothing and other materials that have been exposed to radioactivity. The company plans to expand the temporary facility in seven phases to carry up to 40,000 tonnes of high-level waste, which would be stored in closed containers. Each extension would require review and approval by the NRC.
The company is a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists LLC, which was started by the late Dallas billionaire investor Harold Simmons, and later bought by private equity firm JF Lehman & Co., and Orano USA. Waste control specialists applied for the license in 2015.
The site of Andrews County is near the Texas-New Mexico state line.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the State Congress delegation are fighting a proposal by Holtec International to build a similar temporary nuclear waste facility in Lea County. They say the technical analysis of the site has not been adequate.
New Mexico officials fear the waste will be trapped in their state because the federal government has failed in a period of decades to find a permanent disposal site. Instead, highly radioactive waste is accumulating in dozens of reactors across the country.
In 2006, the NRC approved a proposal for a temporary spent landfill in Utah, but the facility was never built.
Back in the 1980s, the Department of Energy and Congress approved the construction of a permanent, deep underground burial site in southern Nevada. However, state officials fought the bill for years and Congress cut funding in 2011 while Nevada Democrat Harry Reid was the leader of the Senate majority.