Vermont consultants urge delay of Texas nuke dump expansion rule

April 15, 2010

Greg Harman
San Antonio Current QueBlog

A pair of Vermont consultants blasted an unfunded Texas commission this week for preparing legal language to govern the expansion of a two-state low-level radioactive waste dump in West Texas out of fear it may impact Vermont’s ability to dispose of its only nuclear reactor.

"We are gravely concerned that this rulemaking is occurring in a rushed and ill-advised manner," wrote Margaret Gunderson, a consultant to the Joint Fiscal Committee of the Vermont State Legislature, and Arnie Gunderson, an appointed member of the public oversight committee advising on operations at the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The Entergy-owned plant, recently found to be leaking radioactive tritium into area groundwater and ordered closed by the Vermont Legislature, is to be disposed of at the West Texas dump.

In a letter to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commissioners, the Gunderson’s expressed concern that if the Texas-Vermont compact is expanded to other states Vermont may end up losing the space needed for the Vermont Yankee and its growing waste stream. Texas has approved 2.31 million cubic feet for compact wastes from Texas and Vermont, though Vermont expects its one reactor to require at least 1 million cubic feet.

"The 2006 assessment does not include the recently uncovered leaking buried pipes and subsequent soil contamination by tritium, cesium, manganese, zinc, and cobalt," the pair wrote. "In light of these recent findings, it is critical that 1 million cubic feet of space contractually reserved for Vermont’s low-level radioactive waste must be reserved in the import rule for use beginning in 2012 not at some abstract time in the distant future."

Arnie Gunderson told the Current today that he is preparing a report for the Vermont Legislature now that will advocate pushing for a delay of the proposed import rule. Vermont members represent two seats on the eight-member TLLRWDC Commission.

As currently worded, the proposed rule states that room for Texas and Vermont will not be "reduced," but sets no specific volume level. Texas has four operating reactors that will require at least 2.7 million cubic feet of space at WCS. Applications are pending with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for four more reactors.

A representative of the TLLRWDCC was not immediately available for comment, but Commissioner John Ford told theCurrent six months ago that they were "not going to get ahead of where our decision-makers, legislators, and Governor want to go on" the potential import of additional waste streams.

Another reason Vermont was be getting heartburn over the move is that it also would potentially penalize the state if it chose to export Vermont Yankee waste to a state other than Texas.

A three-state compact to dispose of low-level radioactive wastes from Texas, Maine, and Vermont in Texas was approved by Congress in 1998, though Maine later dropped out over frustrations with delays getting a site open in Texas. Though WCS convinced Andrews County taxpayers last year to float the $75-million bond to pay for the compact dump’s construction, a legal challenge pending in El Paso has held up construction ever since.

Further complicating matters, the TLLRWDC Commission has not been funded by the Texas Legislature. Wrote the Gunderson’s: "Since the Texas Compact Commission has no staff and no counsel of its own, there has not been a thorough legal review of this process. We urge the Commission to not pass this language without adequate review by the State of Vermont, its Legislative Legal Counsel, and its Attorney General."

Meanwhile, railroad cars of DOE depleted-uranium waste that Utah Governor Gary Herbert refused entry to his state may be rerouted to WCS, according to a DOE Inspector General report.

Currently, Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County have licenses to dispose of federal Department of Energy waste and "compact" wastes from Vermont and Texas. But WCS has begun to threaten it may go bankrupt if it can’t get the compact site expanded to accept radioactive trash from other states, as well. A call to the company’s press officer in Andrews was forwarded to McDonald Public Relations in Austin, where Chuck McDonald was not immediately available.

WCS is owned by Harold Simmons, a Dallas-based billionaire and prominent Republican Party donor.

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