Radioactive Waste in West Texas

West Texas Bluebonnet - Al Braden

By Susan Curry

It’s been nearly twenty years since the fight to keep low-level radioactive waste out of Sierra Blanca was waged. We were told from the beginning that it was a “done deal” and we should roll over and just acquiesce. But we didn’t: we chose to fight. After hearings and meetings, which lasted for years, in cities all over Texas and in Washington, DC, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) ruled against the efforts of Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons and his company, Waste Control Specialists (WCS). The aftermath of this effort kept Sierra Blanca from becoming a dump for deadly “low-level” radioactive waste. As a reward for actually doing their job and protecting the rights of West Texas citizens, the TNRCC was later abolished by the Texas Sunset Commission, and replaced with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

Simmons and WCS didn’t roll over and give up, either. They shifted their site from Sierra Blanca to another site in West Texas—Andrews County. When it was time to get permitting, Simmons was confident that the permits he needed would be granted. And, indeed, they were, but not before Simmons was charged with offering a $60,000 bribe to (former) State Rep. Robert Talton (R-Pasadena), who turned him over to the District Attorney. 

Despite this bribery charge, the necessary wheels were greased and Simmons got the Texas stamp of approval to make West Texas the dumping ground for our nation’s low-level nuclear waste. Of course, he only had to spend about $150 million to “make” this deal. And—get this—the technical staff of the TCEQ who analyzed the Andrews site concluded that “groundwater is likely to intrude into the proposed disposal units… the Applicant has failed to use numerical modeling to predict the future location of one water table that is expected to intrude into radioactive waste… the Applicant has not demonstrated that the site is suitable for near surface disposal of radioactive waste,” and strongly opposed the permit.

Yet the then Executive Director of the TCEQ, Glenn Shankle, overruled his technical staff. Shankle also apparently did not see that it was necessary to inform the other commissioners about his staff’s negative conclusions. As a result, three staff members resigned in protest of the decision to recommend the license. Regardless, the State of Texas gave the green light to WCS’s permitting license.

In 2009, Andrews County voted 642-639 to use $75 million in taxpayer bond receipts to construct a low-level nuclear waste dump in Andrews. There were ballot irregularities that the judge decided to overlook. Despite the ballot problems and the three vote difference,  the Andrews County Nuclear Waste facility took another step forward.

So, where are we now? We have a “licensed” low-level nuclear waste disposal facility, recklessly located on top of one of America’s most important sources of ground water, the Ogallala Aquifer, authorized through a questionable permitting process involving attempted bribery and licensed by the TCEQ even though its own technical staff strongly opposed the permit. The executive director blatantly ignored the staff’s recommendation to deny the permit and licensed it anyway. When Shankle knew the permit went through, he left his position at TCEQ and six months later, went to work for Waste Control Specialists.

And now, to add insult to injury, Waste Control Specialists has submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build a fully licensed high-level consolidated radioactive waste storage site in Andrews County, Texas, by the end of 2020.

What in the world is WCS trying to do? Moving convoys of deadly, high-level radioactive waste across our crumbling highway and rail systems through highly-populated urban areas to a site that sits over the drinking water of much of our country is a nightmare waiting to happen. It would involve thousands of shipments that would take more than twenty years to complete. Each time shipments work their way down the freeways of America, the risk of a major accident exists. God forbid, what would happen in the event of a terrorist attack?

Please understand, high-level radioactive waste is the most dangerous radioactive material from nuclear power plants. It is so dangerous that it must remain isolated from living things for thousands of years. Radiation exposure can cause genetic damage, leading to birth defects, and can lead to many kinds of cancers, radiation sickness, and death. According to the TCEQ, “without shielding, a person exposed to spent fuel rods would be immediately incapacitated and die within a week.” It is mainly irradiated (spent) fuel rods from nuclear reactors, which still contain most of their original uranium, as well as with radioactive strontium, cesium, and plutonium, which are created during the reactor fission process. High-level nuclear waste in an accident or in the hands of terrorists is unthinkable.

If transporting the high-level waste is a terrible idea, what should be done with it? The least risky option is to store fuel removed from nuclear fuel pools in dry casks at or very near to the site of generation. Those who generated the power and benefitted from it, should take responsibility for the waste and not truck it down the highway, across the country, to dump on West Texas. Those sites already are licensed to store the waste for 60 years past decommissioning, and the sites are already guarded. Targeting a largely Hispanic region in West Texas to store the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste is an extreme example of environmental injustice. The communities and counties along the radioactive waste highways should all have a say in our fate. Most Texans do not consent to being the nation’s radioactive waste dump. Our voices need to be heard by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). We need to say: STOP ALL NUCLEAR GENERATED ENERGY. Don't make more until we can figure what to do with the waste.

With global climate change affecting communities all over the world, it is time we look at our energy sources and realize nuclear energy is not clean.It is deadly because no one can figure out how to dispose of the waste. It is time we get away from non-renewable fossil fuel or radioactive sources and learn to conserve and invest more in renewables. I personally am going to learn to knit warm socks and caps.

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