Texas Sues Energy Department, Led by Ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Over Nuclear Waste

by | March 16, 2017 AT 1:30 PM

By Alex Daugherty

Even though Donald Trump occupies the White House, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton isn't done with the lawsuits.

This week, Paxton sued the Department of Energy, led by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, over the federal government's inability to come up with a permanent nuclear waste storage site.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, seeks to force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission into an up-or-down vote on the licensing of the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site in Nevada, a project that was scrapped after intense political opposition led by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"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."

Currently, a facility in Andrews County, Texas, is one of the nation's largest storage facilities for low-level nuclear waste, and the facility is in the process of getting permission to store high-level nuclear waste.

Environmental groups in North Texas have raised concerns for years about the proposal because much of the waste would be transported along the I-20 corridor that cuts through the heavily populated Fort Worth-Dallas region on its way to Andrews County.

The nuclear energy industry says that temporary waste disposal in sealed casks of metal and concrete is safe and environmentally compatible, but that storing waste in an underground facility like Yucca Mountain adds extra protection from terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Former Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth said that though Paxton's lawsuit appears to solve longstanding federal inaction, the real reason for the legal action is potential profits for the owner of the Andrews County facility, Waste Control Specialists, the Dallas-based company once owned by the late Harold Simmons, once a major Perry campaign donor.

"I'm relatively certain that this lawsuit would have never been filed if Perry wasn't energy secretary," Burnam said. "It's not like Ken Paxton held back and never sued the Obama administration. The timing of this lawsuit has to do more with NRC process than any particular concern that attorney general Paxton might have."

In a recent interview with McClatchy, Paxton hinted that he would continue to sue the federal government if he believes it would benefit Texas, even though the outspoken conservative agrees with Donald Trump on nearly every issue.

"We're still going to be out there, aggressive on the issues," Paxton said. "We're still going to be looking for opportunities to speak as Texans."

Paxton noted in the interview that he has a close relationship with several administration officials, including Perry along with EPA administrator and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

"We're trying to build the relationships," Paxton said.

Karen Hadden of the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition, a Texas-based environmental group, supports the potential environmental impacts of the lawsuit because the Department of Energy declined to hold public meetings in Texas when they were determining where to put nuclear storage facility sites. But she also questions Paxton's motives.

"There's a question of why he's doing this and we don't know what that is," Hadden said. "I think that this maneuver is likely to be a benefit to waste storage in West Texas."

A spokesman for Paxton did not immediately return a request for comment. The Department of Energy also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Perry has not publicly staked a position on the nation's long-term nuclear storage, although he referred to Yucca Mountain as a "political football" during his confirmation hearing in January. Perry was ultimately approved as energy secretary with some Democrats voting in favor.

(c)2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau