Permian Basin nuclear waste project opposed by critics in U.S. Court of Appeals

Nuclear waste project near Carlsbad delayed again amid federal safety inquiry

A nuclear waste storage facility in West Texas was being fought in court by environmentalists who argued a federal agency acted illegally when issuing a license of the facility’s construction and operation.

That project, which would be located near Andrews, Texas and owned by Interim Storage Partners (ISP), was proposed as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was also considering a license for Holtec International to build a similar site near Carlsbad and Hobbs, just over the state line in southeast New Mexico.

The facilities are both designed to temporarily hold spent nuclear fuel rods shipped in via rail from nuclear power plants across the country to the remote desert region, known as consolidated interim storage facilities (CISFs) in industry terms.

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Waste would be held at both sites on an “interim basis” while a permanent repository is developed.

Interim Storage Partners’ project would augment its current facility in Andrews, adding capacity to store up to 40,000 metric tons of the waste, while Holtec’s could hold up to 100,000 metric tons when fully built out.

The waste is presently being held at the generator sites, and supporters of the CISFs argued they could provide a safe alternative to keep the waste near large bodies of water and heavily populated areas, while also diversifying the economy of the oil-dependent Permian Basin region.

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There are no ongoing projects in the U.S. to devise a final resting place for the waste, which drew concerns from opponents that the Permian Basin region could become a “dumping ground” for the nation’s nuclear waste.

Beyond Nuclear, the Sierra Club and Don’t Waste Michigan filed initial briefs March 18 in the U.S. Court of Appeals to challenge the NRC license for ISP, arguing the Nuclear Waste Policy Act barred the federal government from taking ownership of the waste – which the groups contended was required by the proposals – before a permanent repository was available.

They were also critical of the NRC for allegedly failing to consider the risks of transporting the fuel rods through communities across the U.S. and into the region for storage, along with environmental risks and impacts from nearby oil and gas operations.

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The Permian Basin is the U.S.’ most active fossil fuel extraction region, and critics of the facilities including government officials in both states, argued that – an essential economic driver in New Mexico and Texas – could be put at risk by nuclear waste storage.

The groups called on the NRC to re-conduct its environmental impact statement (EIS) of the ISP proposal to consider such risks.

“Based on the foregoing, the Court should reverse the actions of the respondents,” read the joint brief filed by the Sierra Club and Don’t Waste Michigan. “Petitioners further pray the court find and declare that the environmental impact states prepared by the Commission is defective in the respects cited by the petitioners.”

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Mindy Goldstein, an attorney for Beyond Nuclear and directory of Emory University’s Turner Environmental Law Clinic in Atlanta, said the NRC violated federal law when issuing the ISP license and the action should be reverse by the court.

“No federal agency is above the law,” Goldstein said. “On Friday, we filed a brief with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to strike down a license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission because it ignored the unambiguous mandates of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.”

Also opposing the project and its license was oil company Fasken Land and Minerals jointly with Permian Basin Land and Royalty Owners, a nonprofit that advocates for the oil and gas industry.

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The groups argued in their March 18 brief that the NRC’s environmental analysis ignored the “geological characteristics” of the area, including potential seismicity, sinkholes and ongoing oil and gas operations.

They argued emergency response along the routes would fall on the local communities, and the NRC had not considered such local costs when approving the license.

Fasken’s filing called on the court to admit its contentions into the record after the NRC previously denied its standing in the proceedings on the agency’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

“The NRC abused its discretion, acting arbitrarily and capriciously in denying Fasken’s motions and contention relating to site-specific impacts and serious and significant regional transportation issues addressed for the first time in the NRC’s DEIS,” read the brief.

“Fasken’s contention raises mixed environmental and safety issues with abundant factual support and requisite affidavits in accordance with NRC standards.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Permian Basin nuclear waste project opposed in U.S. Court of Appeals