Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 32 No. 36
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Article 4 of 9
September 17, 2021

NRC Gives Blessing to Interim Storage Site in Texas

By Benjamin S. Weiss

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission opened the door for history this week when it approved a private company’s application to build what would be the only consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in the U.S.

In a much-anticipated decision Monday, NRC greenlit Interim Storage Partners’ (ISP) proposed consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) in Andrews County, Texas. ISP, a joint venture between Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, would build its proposed interim storage site at WCS’s existing low-level waste facility in Andrews.

The federal license “authorizes the company to receive, possess, transfer and store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 231.3 metric tons of Greater-Than-Class C low-level radioactive waste for 40 years,” NRC said in a statement Monday. While ISP eventually plans to expand the site’s capacity to up to 40,000 metric tons, each expansion will require a new license amendment, the commission said.

In a Tuesday statement, ISP said that NRC’s “extensive analyses concluded that this facility’s commercial interim storage and transport operations satisfy all environmental, health, and safety requirements without negative impact to nearby residents or existing industries.”

Industry and professional groups praised the licensing decision this week. 

American Nuclear Society (ANS) president Steven Nesbit said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the pro-nuclear organization was “pleased” with NRC’s decision, which “concluded, as expected, that used fuel can be stored safely and securely” at the ISP site.

“A consolidated storage facility would enable more efficient national used fuel storage while awaiting federal government action to discharge its used fuel management responsibilities,” Nesbit said.

Rodney McCullum, senior director of decommissioning and used fuel at prominent trade group Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), congratulated ISP on getting a federal license in an email to RadWaste Monitor Thursday.

“If constructed, this facility would become an important component of our nation’s clean energy infrastructure,” McCullum said. “The nuclear industry’s proven track record safely managing the byproducts of nuclear energy production in robust dry cask storage systems over the past 35 years has played a vital role sustaining the production of over half of America’s carbon-free energy.” 

If it gets built, the ISP site will be the just one of two facilities federally licensed to store the tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel currently stranded at nuclear power plants across the country. 

The proposed Yucca Mountain geologic repository in Nye County, Nev., meanwhile, remains effectively dead after the Barack Obama administration in 2011 pulled its funding following successful political pressure from Nevada’s congressional delegation, including former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the ex-majority leader. The Joe Biden administration’s 2022 budget doesn’t include any new Yucca funding, beyond what’s necessary to guard the site and its demonstration bore. 

NRC has only ever licensed one other private spent fuel facility — the ill-fated Private Fuel Storage site in Utah, which got a federal license in 2006 but was never built.

Although it’s over the federal hurdle, ISP may be in for a fight in the Lone Star State. The proposed interim storage site has faced opposition from a number of Texas stakeholders in recent weeks.

Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas), Andrews County’s Washington delegate, expressed his distaste with NRC’s decision in a press release Tuesday.

“The decision handed down by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license a new nuclear waste storage site in Andrews is a massive blunder,” Pfluger said in the release. “The majority of folks who live and work in this community are vehemently opposed to this waste being stored in Andrews, and not a single elected official supports this decision.”

In Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) touted a law he signed last week banning the storage of high-level nuclear waste, including spent fuel, in Texas. In a Tweet Tuesday, Abbott declared that “Texas will not become America’s nuclear waste dumping ground.”

“The Biden Admin. is trying to dump highly radioactive nuclear waste in west Texas oil fields,” Abbott said. “I just signed a law to stop it.”

A coalition of state lawmakers also petitioned NRC last month to reject ISP’s license application, saying that the proposed interim storage site violates federal law — a claim that some nuclear experts contest.

In Andrews, county executives voted unanimously in July to oppose the site after a community meeting at which WCS president David Carlson said there were no “safety or environmental issue[s] with the proposed project.

Andrews County judge Charlie Falcon told Weapons Complex Monitor by phone Friday that ISP’s licensing leaves him in “uncharted territory.”

“I don’t know where we’re going from here,” Falcon said. “There are just so many variables right now that we have no definitive answer to.”

Falcon said that he met Tuesday with Pfluger to discuss the issue. He also plans to reach out to Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn (both R-Texas) to “get on the same page.” Neither senator has made a public statement on the ISP license.

“I definitely need those guys to help us fight,” Falcon said.

ISP’s site is one of two such commercial interim storage facilities currently under NRC’s consideration. Holtec International is also planning a similar site in Lea County, N.M. NRC has said it would make a decision on the Holtec site in January.