Could a new Ken Paxton lawsuit help land nuclear waste in Texas?


Key Texas policymakers have favored making Texas a repository for high-level radioactive waste.

Environmentalists are opposed to such a plan.

State Attorney General Paxton says the federal government is overdue on a radioactive waste storage decision.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the federal government to force a decision on long-term radioactive waste storage, possibly setting the stage for the waste to be stored in Texas, at least on a short-term basis.

Paxton on Wednesday announced the suit, asking for a vote by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on whether to license Nevada’s Yucca Mountain and to stop the Department of Energy from spending tax dollars on “consent-based” siting.

“For decades, the federal government has ignored our growing problem of nuclear waste,” Paxton said in a statement. “The NRC’s inaction on licensing Yucca Mountain subjects the public and the environment to potential dangerous risks from radioactive waste. We do not intend to sit quietly anymore.”

The suit, filed before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, comes shortly after former Gov. Rick Perry became U.S. energy secretary. Perry counted as a major campaign contributor the late Harold Simmons, who controlled Waste Control Specialists, the company that is now seeking a license to store high-level radioactive waste from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As governor, Perry supported Waste Control’s efforts to expand the kinds of waste it could store at its Andrews County facility.

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Paxton’s campaigns have received at least $15,000 in contributions since 2012 from Waste Control’s political action committee, according to campaign finance records.

The federal government has collected more than $40 billion from utilities over decades, according to Paxton, including $700 million from Texas utilities, to pay for disposing the material deep within Yucca Mountain. But in November 2013, after years of quarrels over the Yucca plan, a federal court determined the U.S. government has “no credible plan” to dispose of the high-level waste.

At present, nearly all of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was generated. All told, there is at least 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored nationally — enough to cover a football field to a height of approximately 20 feet. Texas’ two nuclear sites house roughly 2,400 tons of spent fuel.

A federal commission declared that the United States should press on, developing at least an interim site in a state that voluntarily takes the material.

While Paxton’s suit criticizes that approach, also known as consent-based siting of radioactive waste storage sites — exactly what Waste Control has been working at in West Texas — it chiefly appears to be pressing the federal government to make a final decision on the Yucca proposal.

Whoever manages to make a radioactive waste storage site a reality could be up for an enormous payday, given the money already put into the pot by ratepayers.

In a twist, Paxton names Perry, in his official capacity as energy secretary, as one of the defendants; others include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairwoman and the U.S. treasury secretary.

READ: Will Rick Perry bring high-level radioactive waste to Texas?

Yucca Mountain “was never adequate to isolate waste and should not be pursued again,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, which is also opposed to the storage of radioactive waste in West Texas, partly because of concerns about the prospect of groundwater contamination. “Instead, intense research should be done to find a viable permanent repository and the right systems needed to isolate radioactive waste for millions of years. Our health, safety and economic well-being depend on getting this right, today and for generations into the future.”

Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald said the company is reviewing the lawsuit: “We haven’t had the opportunity to read and thoroughly review it. Therefore, we don’t know if it will have an impact on our project or not.

“WCS has always been supportive of a permanent repository, and we believe a consolidated interim storage facility is needed as part of an integrated waste management system in the U.S.”

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