Rick Perry’s Approach to Federal Funds for Texas

Washington, D.C., April 6, 2014 — Texas Gov. Rick Perry doesn’t want federal money to expand health care to poor Texans. He wants federal money to store nuclear waste to benefit rich folks, most of them not Texans.

In a letter to Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst (who is more powerful in the bizarre Texas government than the governor), and Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, Perry is proposing to use the existing low-level waste storage dump in Andrews County to store spent reactor fuel in the absence of the now-dead Yucca Mountain project in Nevada. He justifies this as a way to recoup some $700 million in extra electric rates Texans have paid into the federal nuclear waste kitty with no discernible results.

Do you smell the acrid odor of political hypocrisy, along with the sweet smell of frying pork fat?

This is political grandstanding by Perry, particularly as his letter was directed to state officials, not the feds. Nuke waste is entirely a federal task. Perry addressed his letter to key state government leaders.

As if they could do anything about it. Texas has no ability to site nuclear waste storage on its own. Like it or not, this is a federal job, with siting the role of the Department of Energy. That’s one of those agencies Perry said he would abolish during his abortive GOP nomination campaign (even if he couldn’t quite remember the full list of those federal agencies he would decapitate).

Beyond that, waste is now stored safely on reactor sites, including those in Texas, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to be believed (and I think it is). While utilities can and have made a case that their payments to the federal waste fund have been wasted, they cannot argue that nuclear safety is compromised. Nor can they credibly argue that the states are better equipped to spend that money that has flowed into federal coffers to enhance safety than Washington.

Indeed, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have to certify that any storage site, including a galvanized shed on a concrete pad in Perry’s back yard, is safe before any spent fuel could end up there. Dag nab it, those feds are here again.

Perry is advancing the utilities’ and nuclear vendors’ agendas. The utilities want nuke waste off of utility sites and in somewhere else, anywhere else. They want the liability off their books. If Uncle Sam (or Cowboy Rick) assumes control of the waste and moves it off of reactors sites it is no longer their financial and regulatory responsibility. Out of site, out of mind. The vendors want a waste solution, however defined and regardless of the merits, because they have a hard time convincing anyone to host a new nuke when there is no clue where the waste will end up.

Perry in Texas is attempting a house-of-cards construct to deal with both industry objections: Texas takes the spent fuel; it is off utility books; the nukes are safe; it’s time to build new capacity.

Will this work? Not likely, although, at best, it conceivably generate a serious discussion about nuclear waste and the fundamentals that undermine the federal nuke waste program. The federal program was created by Congress over 30 years ago and has demonstrated a consistent history of failure. Trying to come up with a sensible replacement is worthwhile. But that’s not what Perry had in mind and it’s an entirely unlikely outcome.

perryPerry is simply looking for political advantage and donor dollars as he ponders another run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. I’ve heard Perry described as “a stuffed shirt in an empty suit, talking through his hat.” When it comes to his proposal for a Lone Star high-level nuke waste dump, that description suffices.