Texas Governor Greg Abbott has come out against two rival plans to ship highly radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants to sites on the Texas-New Mexico border, saying either plan would be unsafe and would threaten the region’s sprawling Permian Basin oilfield.
“A stable oil and gas industry is essential to the economy, and crucial to the security of our great nation,” Abbott, a Republican, wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump on Wednesday. “Allowing the interim storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste at sites near the largest producing oilfield in the world will compromise the safety of the region.”
The nuclear waste plans have for years drawn the ire of advocacy groups who worry about a range of possible environmental and safety threats, but oil and gas interests have become increasingly involved in the fight as well.
A coalition of oil companies and West Texas landowners called Protect the Basin was launched in 2018 to oppose the plans and has more recently stepped up its outreach. One of the coalition members, a ranching and oil company tied to one of the nation’s richest families, has been involved in fighting the issue all the way up to the D.C. Circuit.
“It’s an unusual thing for environmentalists and oil companies to be on the same page, and we are on this issue,” said Karen Hadden, an environmental advocate who leads the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.
In his letter Wednesday, Abbott urged Trump to also oppose the waste plans, echoing a call from Democratic New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who wrote to the president over the summer.
For years, two companies have been competing for a federal license that would allow them to take in shipments of “high-level” radioactive waste from all over the country, mostly in the form of used-up nuclear fuel from power plants.
Congress and the federal government have been wrangling for decades over how and where to dispose of the nation’s growing stockpile of high-level waste, but a clear path forward has never emerged. The Trump administration once flirted with the idea of reviving a long-stalled plan to dispose of the waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, but the president seemed to backtrack on that idea in February.
“Nevada, I hear on you Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you!” Trump wrote in a Twitter post in early February.
The two companies in New Mexico and Texas are asking regulators for the go-ahead to “store” the waste until a final disposal site is located, but that could realistically amount to the waste sitting at one of the temporary sites for decades.
On the New Mexico side, Holtec International wants to build a new facility to house the waste, while a company called Interim Storage Partners plans to bring the waste to an existing facility on the Texas side that has stored less-radioactive types of waste for years. Federal environmental reviews have given both plans the initial thumbs-up, though neither has received a final license to move forward.
Neither company immediately responded to a request for comment on Abbott’s letter. The White House also did not immediately respond.
In the letter, Abbott suggested that neither of the proposed sites would be a suitable choice for storing the waste.
“The proposed sites in Texas and New Mexico do not provide the deep geologic isolation required for permanent storage in order to minimize the risks of accidents, terrorism, or sabotage, which could disrupt the country’s energy supply with catastrophic effects on the American economy,” he said.
Abbott has previously voiced displeasure at the general idea of bringing more radioactive types of nuclear waste to Texas, though he hadn’t until Wednesday specifically opposed the two high-level waste plans. Last year, the governor wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t let Texas become “the radioactive waste dumping ground of America.”
Abbott’s letter comes as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers public comments on its initial reviews of both the Texas and New Mexico plans, and as opponents continue to fight the issue in federal appeals courts. There is no set timeline for when the commission might make a final decision on either plan.
“We will continue to fight and be very vocal,” said Hadden, the environmental advocate. “It’s great that the governor came out against the projects…but that doesn’t mean that this is over.”