Governor Greg Abbott once described his former job as Texas attorney general this way: “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.” Even with a new administration in Washington, Abbott’s successor, Ken Paxton, seems to be carrying on that tradition—even if it pits him against a former Texas governor. Paxton filed suit against several federal agencies on Tuesday to stop them from proceeding with a nuclear waste disposal plan that could dump radioactive waste in West Texas. One of the defendants in the lawsuit is the newly confirmed Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.
“For decades, the federal government has ignored our growing problem of nuclear waste,” Paxton wrote in a press release. “The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission’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.”
Yucca Mountain, a remote peak in the desert of southwestern Nevada, was designated as a potential repository for used nuclear fuel by the Department of Energy in 1987, but decades of permitting delays and protests by environmentalists prevented the DOE from moving forward on the plan. In 2010 the Obama administration pulled funding from Yucca Mountain and created a blue ribbon commission to develop alternative plans to store nuclear waste.
The commission ended up recommending “consent-based siting.” Instead of storing all the nation’s nuclear waste at a single facility like Yucca Mountain, the DOE would allow local municipalities to apply for permission to contract with private companies to store the waste. Last April, the Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists LLC announced plans to store some of the waste at its nearly 15,000-acre site near the New Mexico border in Andrews County, where it already stores low-level radioactive waste.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave its seal of approval to the facility in 2009, but the dump has split the residents of nearby Andrews, a town of 13,000. Supporters, including the local Chamber of Commerce, argued it would create jobs, while opponents warned of health and environmental dangers. “I don’t want the jobs,” Andrews resident Silvia Ramos said at a public hearing, according to KWES. “It’s a job that’s going to kill someone.”
Paxton, apparently, has been paying attention. His lawsuit claims that because the federal government has given up on Yucca Mountain, “taxpayers have been tagged with the costs of temporary, above-ground storage of nuclear waste” at nuclear reactors around the country, including four in Texas. Rather than continuing to pursue “consent-based siting,” Paxton wants the federal government to restart the licensing process for Yucca Mountain. It seeks to force an up or down vote by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, something Paxton claims it’s required to do under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.
As governor, Rick Perry supported bringing high-level radioactive waste to Texas. One of his biggest donors was the late Harold Simmons, who controlled Waste Control Specialists through the umbrella company Valhi. Over the decade from 2003 to his death in 2013, Simmons gave the Perry campaign at least $1.4 million. It was under Perry’s governorship that the company received the license to build its current facility in Andrews County.
Now Perry finds himself a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of his own state. As both an ardent champion of states’ rights and opponent of federal interference, the secretary of energy must surely appreciate the irony.