On Wednesday, longtime Austin activists Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition and former Public Citizen Texas Director Tom “Smitty” Smith staged a press event with other activists from San Antonio, the Washington, D.C. area, and Germany at the train tracks next to the Alamodome.
They brought along an inflatable resembling a nuclear waste cask to lay near the rail lines. The group is bringing the cask on a statewide tour to represent the thousands of containers of waste that could roll through San Antonio and other cities on their way to the Waste Control Specialists‘ disposal site 30 miles outside of the Permian Basin town of Andrews, near the New Mexico border.
After being on hold for more than a year, Waste Control Specialists’ application to begin accepting high-level nuclear waste is again active before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency in charge of regulating the nuclear industry.
The application is now under a different name – Interim Storage Partners, the result of a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and a company controlled by the French government.
Across the country, the nuclear power industry has generated roughly 70,000 metric tons of this waste, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That includes about 30 years’ worth of waste now being stored at the South Texas Project, a nuclear plant jointly owned by San Antonio’s CPS Energy, Austin Energy, and NRG Energy.
Nuclear power plants generate electricity by using heat generated by nuclear fission to create steam that spins a turbine. After the fuel rods become too thermally cool to generate electricity, they still emit more than enough radiation to kill a person standing next to them without protective shielding.
That’s why the companies that own this waste store it in metal canisters inside of concrete casks that can weigh more than 100 tons.
Anti-nuclear activists say these casks are vulnerable to unforeseen disasters or terrorist attacks. However, an independent 2006 report by a National Research Council committeestates they can withstand punctures, explosions, submersion, and other calamities, though they may be vulnerable to “very long duration, fully engulfing fires.”
Rather than moving the casks across the country to one location, the activists say the waste should instead continue to be stored where it is now with beefed-up security and shielding.
They also warn of the potential dangers involved in transporting the waste to West Texas.
“It is not safe anywhere, but it is even less safe moving it on roads, rail, and waterways,” said Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Maryland-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service.
The region along the Texas-New Mexico border where Waste Control Specialists operates is already a major hub of the nuclear industry. Uranium enrichment facility Urenco and the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant both lie on the New Mexico side.