A bill passed by the Texas Legislature could ban the storage of high-level nuclear waste in the stateand could prove a path to similar efforts in neighboring New Mexico.
House Bill 7 was passed by the Texas House of Representatives on an 119-3 vote Sept. 2 and unanimously by the Texas Senate.
The bill was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for a signature and which would create a new state law.
If enacted, the bill would expressly prohibit the state from issuing permits to construct or operate a facility to store nuclear waste within the state, with the exception of existing nuclear facilities like power plants that store the waste on-site.
“With the exception of storage at the site of currently or formerly operating nuclear power reactors and currently or formerly operating nuclear research and test reactors operated by a university, a person, including the compact waste disposal facility license holder, may not dispose of or store high-level radioactive waste in this state,” read the bill.
The bill came as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was engaged in a licensing process to expand a facility owned by Interim Storage Partners in Andrews, Texas – on the state’s border with southeast New Mexico within the oil-rich Permian Basin region – to store about 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel rods.
About 70 miles east into New Mexico, Holtec International planned its facility along the border of Eddy and Lea counties to hold more than 100,000 metric tons of nuclear waste.
Both facilities were intended, per the companies that hope to build and operate them, to hold the waste temporarily as a permanent repository is developed.
A permanent storage location for the waste does not exist in the U.S. after a project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada was blocked by lawmakers in that state and defunded during the administration of former-President Barack Obama.
Opponents of the temporary facilities argued they posed a risk to communities near the sites and communities along the transport routes via rail from generator sites across the country, and worried the facilities could become permanent repositories.
State leaders in both New Mexico and Texas voiced opposition to siting the facilities within the Permian Basin region, contending it could threaten industries like oil and gas and agriculture and dissuade developers from investing in the region.
New Mexico Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-36) of Las Cruces, a frequent critic of the proposals and chair of New Mexico’s Radioactive and Hazardous Waste Committee said the Texas bill was the latest and possibly the loudest show of force on the issue.
He said the Texas Legislature is typically heavily divided and widespread support for the bill should make the message clear.
“When you have people so philosophically and politically different to agree on something, it should send a very loud and unmistakable message to Washington, D.C. that this region does not want to be the storage ground for this material,” Steinborn said.
“I hope their governor signs it and Washington hears us regionally loud and clear. This is the same message our governor has sent along with statewide officials and lots of local government.”
Municipalities in southeast New Mexico, including the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs and Eddy and Lea counties supported the projects as a means of economic diversification in a region heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry.
But throughout both states, local leaders and governing bodies passed resolutions opposing the site, including Andrews County where the Interim Storage Partners Site would be built.
Steinborn said he would consider a similar bill in the upcoming 2022 Legislative Session convening in January or a subsequent session.
He said New Mexico law already bans nuclear waste storage without consent.
“Quite frankly, some of the tenets of this bill we may not need a law to be in that place in New Mexico,” Steinborn said. “We already have a law to not allow the storage of this material unless there’s content. You can look at our leadership and see that threshold hasn’t been crossed.”
The NRC recently published environmental impact statements for both sites, finding minimal impacts and recommending licenses be issued.
Opposition from lawmakers in both states, Steinborn said, should lead to the NRC to reevaluate its analysis of the proposals.
“I think the NRC, their evaluation process is missing some really important considerations. I think they do have some a predisposition toward approving this. They find storing this waste as part of their mission,” he said.
“It’s not part of their consideration at all the transportation risks or the risk to local communities at all.”
Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition said the Texas bill’s passage would not only protect Texans from risks associated with the site, but communities across the nation Hadden said were threatened as the waste is transported thousands of miles to the deserts of West Texas and southeast New Mexico.
“These strong bipartisan votes are a clear message from the Texas Legislature to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When it comes to storage of deadly radioactive waste in Texas: We don’t want it,” Hadden said. “We hope the bill will provide safety protections Texans need and prevent unnecessary transportation risks nationwide.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.