We must protect Texas from others’ radioactive waste

June 10, 2010

Austin American Statesman

Texas is at risk of becoming the nation’s radioactive waste dumping ground. The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission is pushing forward a rule that essentially invites 36 states to dump radioactive waste in Texas, and possibly international sources as well. The commission should instead limit waste to that generated by the two compact states Texas and Vermont. Financial and safety risks are being ignored in the rush to approve the rule, which has no volume or curie limits for waste.

Everything except the fuel rods of nuclear reactors could go to Waste Controls Specialists’ Andrews County dump. Nuclear reactors vessels, “poison curtains” that absorb reactor core radioactivity, and sludges and resins could all go to West Texas. In fact, there is not a single radionuclide that cannot go to a so-called low-level radioactive waste dump.

Exposure to radioactive materials can cause cancer, radiation poisoning, genetic defects and even death, depending on the type of radioactive material and the level of exposure. Tritium, found in reactor waste, remains hazardous for up to 240 years. Strontium-90 remains hazardous for up to 560 years, and Iodine-129 remains hazardous for 320 million years. How can we ensure that these materials will not contaminate water and soil during vast stretches of time?

Existing radioactive waste dumps across the country have leaked, and billions of dollars are needed for cleanup. Radioactive waste going to the compact site would be disposed of in trenches and covered with dirt.

The Andrews County site is geologically inadequate. In a rare move, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staff recommended denying the radioactive waste dump license. When it became clear that the license would be approved, three long-term employees resigned in protest. An August 2007 TCEQ staff memo says “groundwater is likely to intrude into the proposed disposal units and contact the waste from either or both of two water tables near the proposed facility.” State law requires that groundwater "not intrude into the waste." The water table may be closer than 14 feet from the bottom of trenches. How many and which aquifers could become contaminated if there were leaks? Can we afford to find out the hard way? What liabilities could Texas incur?

Radioactive waste could travel by rail and on interstate highways throughout Texas. No one has analyzed whether Texas’ emergency responders are fully trained and equipped to handle accidents involving radioactive waste. Some Texas counties have no full-time professional fire departments, including Andrews County, where the dump is located, and Somervell and Matagorda counties, where Comanche Peak and South Texas Project nuclear reactors are located.

There is no room at the planned dump for radioactive waste from across the country. The Waste Control Specialists’ compact site is licensed for 2.3 million cubic-feet of waste. Texas and Vermont will need three times this amount of space to dispose of five existing reactors when they’re decommissioned. Vermont Yankee’s cooling tower collapse and recent tritium leaks led to a decision not to renew the nuclear reactor’s license. Decommissioning may come sooner than expected.

Is the commission trying to create a "volume discount" rate for dumping radioactive waste on Texas? Who would profit? Only a private company headed by a billionaire, while taxpayers would bear financial and safety risks. Other compacts have excluded “out of compact” waste. There is no legal reason that the commission cannot close the gate and no excuse for not doing so. The commission should switch gears and limit the Andrews County site to only Texas and Vermont waste.

Fifteen state representatives have asked the commission to delay the radioactive waste import rule vote. They want time to analyze the increased financial risks for taxpayers and the health and safety risks of transporting radioactive waste from across the country through major cities and small Texas towns.

It’s not too late. Citizens can urge elected officials to insist on limiting the site to the compact states, Texas and Vermont. The Commission’s Import Rule vote should be halted until waste limits are assured and the Legislature has a chance to analyze financial, health and safety risks to Texans.

If you don’t want Texas to become the nation’s radioactive waste dump, the time to speak up is now.

Hadden is executive director of the SEED Coalition.