Legislation seeking to ban high-level nuclear waste from the State of Texas will now be taken up by the Texas Senate after the House of Representatives gave final approval of the bill in a vote held on Monday. 

House Bill 7 (HB7) by Representative Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa) was filed in response to an effort to bring the nation’s high-level radioactive waste to a disposal facility in Andrews County – with strong opposition from residents and local elected officials demanding the legislation to ban the material be filed.

Waste Control Specialists (WCS) which currently operates a low-level waste facility in Andrews has been seeking a federal permit from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to import and store multiple types of nuclear waste that is significantly more radioactive than what the facility is currently allowed to store. 

Opponents say the waste WCS seeks to dispose of presents both a danger to the environment and the oil industry, as well as creates a significant national security threat. 

While opponents have been receptive to Landgraf’s stated intent to ban “high-level” radioactive waste, some say his legislation has significant loopholes that need to be addressed, loopholes that have caused multiple clashes between Midland’s Representative Tom Craddick, and Landgraf over the issue. 

Background

The Andrews waste facility formally began the application process back in 2015, with WCS sending a letter to the NRC indicating its intent to seek licensure to store nuclear waste derived from power plants from around the country. 

It was originally stated the intent of the permit was to seek authorization to store up to 40,000 tons of waste, mainly spent nuclear fuel rods, that would be transported and stored at the facility for 40 to 100 years. 

At the time, Landgraf took a neutral position on the issue, stating that he looked forward to working with residents and officials in Andrews to be sure that the health and safety concerns of everyone in the area were accounted for throughout the discussion surrounding the application. 

Landgraf’s recent predecessor at the time, Tyron Lewis, opposed the effort and stated that he didn’t “think that (high-level waste) is what the site was meant for.” 

Opponents have pointed out it was originally promised that the site would only ever be a low-level waste facility. 

Past Controversy

Landgraf has had an active relationship with WCS over the years, with the waste facility and its senior officials having given thousands in campaign contributions directly to Landgraf over the years. WCS has also spent hundreds of thousands in lobby fees to influence the legislature. 

In turn, Landgraf has filed multiple pieces of legislation to the benefit of WCS that have drawn controversy, including two similar recent examples. 

In 2019, Landgraf reportedly got former State Representative Poncho Nevarez (D- Eagle Pass) to carry an amendment described as a financial giveaway to WCS to an unrelated bill intended to help domestic violence victims. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 1804 by Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) would have given law enforcement tools to track domestic abusers who were released on bail, providing greater protection to their victims.

Landgraf’s amendment to the bill, which would have given WCS a reduction in state fees to the tune of an estimated $4.2 million, caused the domestic violence victim protection legislation to die after Governor Greg Abbott vetoed the legislation, citing the addition of the amendment as the reason. 

“Senate Bill 1804 was a laudable effort to address domestic violence, until someone slipped in an ill-considered giveaway to a radioactive waste disposal facility,” Abbott wrote in his official veto statement. “Unfortunately, the bill author’s good idea about domestic violence has been dragged down by a bad idea about radioactive waste.”

Fast forward to this year, Landgraf once again included the fee reduction provisions buried in the details of his controversial legislation that he headlined as banning high-level nuclear waste (HB2692). 

The legislative analysis on HB2692 estimated that Landgraf’s latest attempts at reducing state fees on WCS would constitute a loss of $798,000 in general revenue to the state, and a loss of $2.3 million to the “Environmental Radiation and Perpetual Care Account,” to the total benefit to WCS of just nearly $3.1 million. 

The Environmental Radiation and Perpetual Care Account that Landgraf’s bill would have defunded is an account that was established to retain a portion of WCS’s profits to ensure clean-up efforts can be funded should there ever be a leak that WCS is unable to pay for. 

Instead of being celebrated by opponents of the high-level nuclear waste, the legislation was opposed. 

The bill ultimately died after Representative Tom Craddick called a point of order on the legislation, pointing out the multiple provisions in the bill violated the Texas Constitution’s single-subject rule and wrote that he had “grave concerns”regarding the bill.  

Second Special Session 

With the NRC posed to announce whether it is granting the high-level waste permit to WCS on September 13, those opposed to the license, including Governor Greg Abbott, added the issue on the agenda for the second special session of the Texas Legislature. 

Landgraf was once again tapped to file the legislation addressing the issue, this time filing legislation (HB7) that only speaks to prohibiting “high-level” radioactive waste and excluding the financial breaks to WCS. 

But the controversy surrounding this bill continues. 

An attorney with Fasken Oil and Ranch, as well the Permian Basin Coalition, and Representative Craddick have pointed out that Landgraf’s HB7 used the term “high-level” in the context of the federal regulatory definition, which is narrower than the broader concept of high-level nuclear waste. 

“WCS is seeking Greater Than Class C” (GTCC) that comes out of operating and decommissioned reactors. It is referred to as reactor-related-greater-than-class-C waste, and it is more radioactive than anything Andrews County has ever agreed to store,” explained Monica Perales, an attorney with Fasken Oil and Ranch. 

“There is no room for error by the Texas Legislature,” Representative Craddick wrote in a statement he issued after Landgraf killed an amendment by Craddick that sought to include reactor-based GTCC in Landgraf’s latest bill. 

“[T]he Landgraf bill is nothing more than an error that fails to block spent nuclear fuel and reactor-related Greater Than Class C waste,” Craddick stated, “The message must be clear: Texas is not the storage grounds for this highly toxic waste.”

In defending the scope of his legislation, Landgraf wrote on Facebook saying that the viewpoint of the Andrews community was officially reflected by the commissioner’s court resolution and that he “filed legislation in accordance with the clear will of the people.” He also stated that the legislation does not provide a “mirror ban” on the pending NRC permit nor was it intended to, rather he claimed it does mirror the county commissioner’s resolution. 

Landgraf went on to say reactor based GTCC is not high-level radioactive waste under federal or state definitions, and that if the Andrews community wants it banned, he will take action to do so in the future, despite having rejected Craddick’s amendment last week. 

The title of the Andrews County resolution states it is expressing “opposition to the consolidated interim storage of high-level radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel in Andrews County, Texas.”

With the second special session of the Texas Legislature ending on September 7, the Texas Senate only has a matter of days to take up and pass legislation that will represent the state’s official position on the issue. 

Matt Stringer

Matt Stringer is from Odessa, Texas, and serves as the Editor for Odessa Headlines.