Kathy Willens / AP
Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017 | 2 a.m.
As governor, Rick Perry urged the federal government to make Texas the repository for highly radioactive waste from around the nation.
The company that most stood to benefit had an owner who was one of the top donors to Perry's campaigns.
Now Perry is President-elect Donald Trump's choice to be U.S. energy secretary — putting him in prime position to influence who gets permission to build the highly lucrative radioactive waste facility.
Among other things, the U.S. Energy Department oversees radioactive waste disposal.
The politically connected Texas company Waste Control Specialists, whose late owner was a stalwart backer of Perry's, wants to develop a facility in West Texas' remote Andrews County that could store spent fuel from the nation's nuclear power plants.
Waste Control Specialists is currently the only company vying for the permit, though a competitor from New Mexico has announced its intention to seek permission for such a project.
The move by Waste Control Specialists is an effort to fill a yawning gap in the centralized storage of the radioactive waste after the scuttling of Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a dumping ground.
For decades the federal government had collected billions of dollars from utilities, including $700 million from Texas utilities, to pay for disposing the material deep within Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But in November 2013, after years of quarrels over the Yucca plan, a federal court determined the U.S. government has "no credible plan" to dispose of the high-level waste.
Currently, nearly all of the nation's spent nuclear fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was generated. All told, there is at least 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored nationally — enough to cover a football field to a height of approximately 20 feet. Texas' two nuclear sites house roughly 2,400 tons of spent fuel.
A federal commission declared that the United States should press on, developing at least an interim site in a state that voluntarily takes the material.
Whoever manages to shepherd that site into a reality could be up for an enormous payday, given the money already put into the pot by ratepayers.
Technically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent agency, will decide the fate of Waste Control Specialists' storage permit application.
But the energy secretary can exert control by setting key policies on radioactive waste handling. In September, for example, current Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that privately owned storage facilities, like the one proposed by Waste Control Specialists, could be a way around the political impasse on nuclear waste.
Dale Klein, a former chairman of the commission and a University of Texas engineering professor, said Perry can exercise some influence over the outcome since money that would be used for the interim storage flows through the Energy Department. The Energy Department also will take title to the waste once it leaves the hands of utilities, essentially making it the client in any long-term storage arrangement.
Bullish on nuclear waste
As governor, Perry was bullish on storing waste in Texas.
In March 2014, Perry unveiled a state environmental agency report — one he had ordered — that determined Texas was a suitable spot for the nuclear waste.
"The citizens of Texas — and every other state currently storing radioactive waste — have been betrayed by their federal government," Perry wrote in a letter to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, because a federal solution to long-term storage of the waste doesn't exist despite billions of dollars paid by utilities to pay for a site.
That solution was meant to be Yucca, the Nevada site once designated to be home to millions of pounds of highly radioactive waste. But at the time of Perry's writing, Yucca was no longer on the table, after billions of dollars in studies and years of political bickering.
The Trump administration could try to revive the Yucca Mountain plan, especially now that Harry Reid, the longtime Nevada Democratic senator who quashed such a project, has retired from the U.S. Senate.
Among other things, Perry's Energy Department could decide to reopen the office of radioactive waste management, shuttered by the Obama administration as part of the president's pledge to thwart Yucca Mountain.
But, in the meantime, Perry could direct utilities to ship spent fuel to Texas.
Perry "is familiar with, has a deep understanding of the issues at play," Waste Control Specialists spokesman Chuck McDonald said. "From our perspective, from the perspective of the nuclear radioactive waste disposal industry, it's a benefit to have Rick Perry's experience at the Department of Energy."
During Perry's tenure, and with his signature, Texas passed legislation allowing Waste Control Specialists to license and construct a low-level radioactive waste facility.
"You can't argue with the facts: Texas addressed an issue when very few others had," McDonald said.
Among Perry's top supporters was Harold Simmons, who controlled Waste Control Specialists through publicly traded holding company Valhi.
In the decade leading up to his death in 2013, Simmons contributed at least $1.4 million to Texans for Rick Perry.
In 2011, Simmons' Contran Corp. gave more than $1 million to Make Us Great Again, the super PAC supporting Perry's 2012 run for president. That year, Simmons himself gave $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry.
And in 2012, Simmons and his wife, Annette, gave $26,865,000 to outside groups, all conservative, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
Family giving to politicians appears to have fallen off since Simmons' death, though his wife gave $12,500 to Gov. Greg Abbott's campaign and $25,000 to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's campaign.
Perry spokesman Marc Palazzo said Perry has no ties to Waste Control. The former governor was traveling and unavailable for comment on Friday.
Citing his company's experienced workforce and community support, Waste Control Specialists President and CEO Rod Baltzer said the company "is a natural fit for a solution to the challenge" of high-level waste storage.
"We have a long history of assisting the (Energy Department) in solving their significant waste management challenges," he wrote in a blog post Thursday.
The handling of radioactive waste has long concerned environmentalists.
Perry is "enamored of this idea of interim storage of high-level radioactive waste," said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. "We think it's better to keep it at nuclear plants until a proper long-term geologic storage site can be decided. Doesn't make sense to ship it somewhere for 20 or 30 years, then ship it somewhere else. It increases the chances for terrorist attacks or an accident."
The Waste Control Specialists application is for a 40-year license and 40-year renewal, meaning high-level waste could be stored for as long as 80 years.
"The spent fuel would arrive already sealed in canisters, so the handling would be limited to moving the canisters from transportation to storage casks," Mark Lombard, director of the division of spent fuel management at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote on an agency blog in April 2016.
Another Texas team eager to make a deal for interim storage of high-level radioactive waste also has ties to Perry.
Austin attorney Bill Jones, Perry's former general counsel before Perry appointed him to the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents and then the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, has been involved in a years-long effort to land an interim storage facility in Texas.
Jones didn't reply to requests for comment.
McDonald said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could give Waste Control Specialists permission to store high-level radioactive waste by 2020 — with the federal government to hold public hearings as part of the process.
"It will be fascinating to watch how things proceed," said Klein, the commission's former chairman. "It's time for the nation to move on and solve this issue and not stick its head in the sand."