Two more violations found at nuclear waste dump

Expired waste, cracks in containment pad found at West Texas site

Sunday, June 27, 2010

By Betsy Blaney
Associated Press /Austin American Statesman

LUBBOCK — A site in West Texas for disposing of some of the nation’s low-level radioactive waste has two more problems to deal with.

Officials with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said the agency will issue a notice of violation within two weeks because the company that operates the site, near the town of Andrews, has stored a concrete canister filled with the hottest low-level radioactive material beyond the 365 days allowed under a waste processing license.

The commission is drafting requirements for Waste Control Specialists to deal with the violation, but because of "potential issues related to repackaging and transportation, the TCEQ will allow the waste to remain on site as long as WCS complies with TCEQ’s corrective action requirements," agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow wrote in an e-mail.

No fines will be issued, she said.

Last month, the environmental agency denied the company’s request for an extension until June 8, 2011, for the canisters, which came from a Tennessee radioactive processing plant.

In a routine check at the Andrews site, state inspectors also found cracks up to an inch wide on a 10-acre asphalt pad near where the canisters of radioactive material sit.

Morrow said the pad is important because it is a safeguard against ground contamination.

A company spokesman said he was not aware of any pending action from the commission. Rickey Dailey said the company thinks the nine canisters should be classified under its storage license, which has no time limit for interim use.

"We have a difference of opinion, and we’re continuing discussions to resolve the issue," he said.

The cracks were repaired and sealed last month, Dailey said. He said they were "superficial" and did not jeopardize the integrity of the pad.

Inspectors now want the company to submit engineering assessments on the pad’s condition and its long-term viability and to provide details of past and future repairs, according to a May 25 commission letter to the company.

They will also look at how the pad was constructed years ago, said Susan Jablonski, the agency’s radioactive materials division director.

"We want to do further investigation," she said. "We’re interested in the condition of the pad for any storage of radioactive material as well as the ongoing maintenance of that in the future."

The pad once held hundreds of 20,000-pound canisters of uranium byproduct from a shuttered weapons plant in Ohio, where the ore was processed for use in reactors to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons from the 1950s until 1989. These canisters are buried at the site.

The state’s pending action against Waste Control Specialists comes as a commission overseeing a low-level radioactive disposal compact involving Texas and Vermont is considering allowing 36 other states to dispose of their material, which includes workers’ clothing, glass, metal and other materials used at nuclear power plants, hospitals, universities and research labs.

The commission has not set a date to vote on proposed rules for importing the waste, which are opposed by some lawmakers and environmental groups.

News of the cracks and the pending violation notice didn’t surprise environmental groups.

"I think that, so far, Waste Control Specialists’ performance doesn’t inspire confidence," said Trevor Lovell of Public Citizen Texas . "This is poor performance from a company that boasts of being the nation’s solution for low-level radioactive waste."

Since 2004, the site has gotten six violation notices, none of which were classified as major. The commission has given the site a high compliance rating.

Two years ago, environmental commissioners signed off on an agreement for two violations and fined the company about $151,000.

The site had mismanaged hazardous waste near a rail car unloading area, and personnel failed to get authorization before letting radioactive material — including plutonium 239 and radium 226 — be released into the septic system inside a laboratory.

Should the commission adopt the rules on procedures for importing the waste from the other states, Morrow said the company would need to apply for an amendment to its disposal license to allow for burial of that type of waste.

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