No room for error at radioactive waste site

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dallas Morning News Editorial

Cracked asphalt provides a stark reminder of the nonexistent margin for error at a controversial radioactive waste dump in West Texas.

When state inspectors visited the site in Andrews County, they found cracks up to an inch wide in asphalt near canisters of radioactive material. While cracked asphalt is fairly inconsequential – and pretty much par for the course – when it comes to our city streets, it can be a dangerous proposition at a radioactive waste dump.

A spokesman for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, which operates the low-level radioactive waste site, dismissed the cracks as superficial and said they have been repaired. But as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has noted, that asphalt pad is an important safeguard against ground contamination.

The TCEQ is rightly seeking more information about the condition and history of the 10-acre asphalt pad. And that’s not the only cause for concern at the site. The TCEQ also plans to issue a notice of violation for storing a concrete canister filled with the hottest low-level radioactive material longer than allowed.

The Andrews County site has received six violation notices during the last six years, as significant questions about its proximity to an aquifer have swirled. The latest problems emerged amid a disconcerting push to significantly expand operations in Andrews County, potentially allowing 36 states to ship low-level waste to Texas.

Fortunately, members of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission have tapped the brakes and are revamping the plan, which had appeared to be on the fast track for approval. It’s not clear, though, how soon the compact commission might act.

The cracked asphalt and the questionable canister point to crucial safety questions that must be answered before any expansion gets consideration. The rules that could open up the current Texas-Vermont disposal agreement and permit dozens of states to dump waste in Andrews County don’t merely need to be tweaked; they should be tabled until officials are sure that every precaution has been taken to protect Texas and its residents.

So far, that hasn’t happened.

The argument for extreme caution in Andrews County should not be mistaken for a not-in-my-back-yard reflex or a broader opposition to nuclear energy. It’s simply recognition of the high stakes associated with radioactive waste disposal.

Last month, 15 Texas legislators wrote to the compact commission, urging members not to adopt the rules allowing expansion at the site right now. They underscored significant liability issues, concerns about health and safety, as well as the potential fiscal impact a leak could have.

As the lawmakers note, key questions about preparedness, precautions and due diligence have not yet been answered. At least for now, Texas is not sufficiently equipped to become much of the nation’s radioactive dumping ground.

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