Federal regulators have approved a private company’s plan to store nuclear waste in the oil fields of West Texas, the latest move in the continuing saga of where to store spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Sept. 13 issued a license to Interim Storage Partners LLC (ISP), a joint venture of Orano CIS LLC and Waste Control Specialists LLC, to put a storage repository—known as a consolidated interim storage facility, or CISF—in the Permian Basin, the nation’s most prolific oil-producing region. The site could hold as much as 40,000 metric tons of radioactive waste.

The NRC in a news release said the agency “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. The company has said it plans to expand the facility in seven additional phases, up to a total capacity of 40,000 metric tons of fuel. Each expansion would require a license amendment with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews.”

A timeline of the licensing process for the ISP project and accompanying documentation is available on the NRC website. 

Spent Fuel Sealed in Casks

The spent fuel would be shipped by rail from nuclear plants across the U.S. The used fuel assemblies are sealed in casks which are then encased in concrete, and which would then be stored above ground at the site near Andrews, Texas, near the border with New Mexico. Jeff Isakson, CEO of ISP, has repeatedly said the process is safe, noting his company has spent nearly a decade “and millions of dollars” to ensure safety standards are met. 

Oil production in the Permian has averaged just below 4.8 million barrels per day this month, with natural gas output at about 17.7 billion cubic feet per day, according to Upstream Analytics and GlobalData Oil and Gas.

A 2017 Department of Energy review of nuclear waste shipments worldwide found that there have been few transportation accidents involving spent nuclear fuel, and those that occurred with minor. The DOE also has said that radioactive waste in the U.S., including material from weapons production, is moved via routes that minimize any potential exposure to radiation. 

Lawmakers Oppose Project

Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott last week signed legislation that aims to stop the ISP project. The Andrews County Commissioners’ Court, which acts as the county’s board of commissioners, earlier this year voted to oppose the project after previously expressing support. The commissioners initially said the project would bring economic stability to the region and offset the cyclical nature of oil and gas production, but changed course in the face of local opposition to the plan.

Two lawsuits that could block the Texas installation, and a similar CISF just 35 miles away in New Mexico backed by Holtec International that is still seeking federal approval, are currently pending at U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The suits say the projects violate federal law.

Holtec in recent years has been buying nuclear plants that are closed or scheduled for retirement. The company’s website offers videos of its work worldwide, including what the company has done at the Chernobyl site in Russia.

‘Inherently High Risk’

Kevin Kamps, an official with Beyond Nuclear, a Maryland-based group opposed to nuclear power and nuclear weapons and a vocal opponent of the CISF projects, in an email to POWER wrote, “Transporting highly radioactive waste is inherently high-risk. Fully loaded irradiated nuclear fuel containers would be among the very heaviest loads on the roads, rails, and waterways. They would test the structural integrity of badly degraded rails, for example, risking derailments. Even if our nation’s infrastructure is ever renovated someday, the shipping containers themselves will remain vulnerable to severe accidents and terrorist attacks, which could release catastrophic amounts of hazardous radioactivity, as in a densely populated urban area. Even so-called ‘routine’ or ‘incident-free’ shipments are like mobile X-ray machines that can’t be turned off, in terms of the hazardous emissions of gamma and neutron radiation, dosing innocent passersby, as well as transport workers.”

Kamps’ group said it expects Holtec’s  project in New Mexico will receive NRC approval next year. The New Mexico site would have capacity to store 173,600 metric tons of irradiated fuel, in addition to the initial 40,000 metric tons in Texas.

 “The NRC never should have even considered these applications, because they blatantly violate the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act by assuming that the federal government will take responsibility for the waste before a permanent repository is licensed and operating,” said Diane Curran, an attorney for Beyond Nuclear, among the groups that brought the suits. “Licensing the ISP and Holtec facilities would defeat Congress’ purpose of ensuring that nuclear waste generated by U.S. reactors will go to a deep geologic repository, rather than to vulnerable surface facilities that may become permanent nuclear waste dumps.”

Political Fight

Politicians have fought for years over where to store the spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power plants, and nuclear waste from other sites. Federal  lawmakers in 1987 designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, as a national repository, but opposition to the plan—led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat—halted the project. 

President Barack Obama in 2009 ended funding for the plan. The Trump administration initially supported reviving the Yucca Mountain project, before reversing course early in 2020. The Biden administration also opposes any storage at the Nevada site.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm during her confirmation hearing before Congress earlier this year told lawmakers “The administration opposes the use of Yucca Mountain for the storage of nuclear waste. It is clearly a very sticky situation and we have to maybe look at what the Blue Ribbon Commission did on this, which was to engage with some consensus strategies that will allow us to determine where that waste will go.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission was formed during the Obama administration to conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing spent nuclear fuel, and recommend strategies for storage of nuclear waste. Granholm has said Biden administration officials want to work with congressional and state leaders to reach a consensus on the issue.

Nuclear energy experts have said that moving spent nuclear fuel to the sites in Texas and New Mexico would mean shipments would take place across 44 states.  

Texas lawmakers were firm in their opposition to the ISP site, passing a bill that would ban disposal or storage of high-level radioactive waste in the state. State senators voted unanimously against the ISP plan, and the bill—which directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to deny state permits to the ISP project—passed the Texas House by a vote of 119-3. Gov. Abbott signed the bill into law last week. 

Texas congressional representatives also have written letters to the NRC expressing opposition. 

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).