Texas Is Considering Accepting High-Level Radioactive Waste, and Environmentalists Are Pissed

The United States has never quite figured out what to do with its spent nuclear fuel, some 68,000-plus highly radioactive tons of which is sitting in temporary storage at the nation's 104 nuclear power plants. The plan has been to bury the stuff in a secure geological formation deep underground, but, with Nevada's Yucca Mountain now effectively off the table, it's not clear where that will be.

On Friday, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus put the Lone Star State on the short list, instructing the House Committee on Environmental Regulation to study the disposal of high-level radioactive waste and its potential economic impact and recommend state and federal legislation to make that happen in Texas.

On a certain level, this makes sense. Texas, after all, has large underground formations in arid, sparsely populated areas along with broad, lax environmental regulations and, with its embrace of Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews County, a proven willingness to serve as a dumping ground for lower-level radioactive waste.

But the news caught environmentalists by surprise. It also made them angry.

"Every other state in the nation that's looked at this has rejected high-level radioactive waste just too dangerous and the risk of site failure is too grave," Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith tells Unfair Park this morning.

A certain amount of NIMBYism is understandable when it comes to storing humongous quantities of spent nuclear fuel, which will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

But Smith and his colleagues at the Sierra Club and the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition say they have two big reasons to be worried.

One is that Andrews County, the site they see as the most likely depository for the high-level waste, is too dangerous. There is water in monitoring wells that could become contaminated, and it's adjacent to an aquifer serving eight states, Smith says.

The other is that they don't trust Waste Control Specialists, which they view as the company most likely to benefit from Texas deciding to accept high-level radioactive waste. The company skated through the regulatory process for the Andrews County facility, which was greased by WCS founder Harold Simmons' generous contributions to Governor Rick Perry and other Republicans.

Given the composition of the House Committee on the Environment (five of seven members voted last session to ease the rules on WCS' facility), that seems plausible. (The Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder reports that a second company, Austin-based AFCI Texas, is also interested.)

It seems even more likely when one considers the "economic impact" that Straus asked lawmakers to consider. According to The New York Times, somewhere between $15 and $30 billion are paid annually to dispose of the low-level radioactive waste that WCS' Andrews County facility accepts. High-level waste, Smith says, would be "far more profitable."

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.