Texas Proposal Spurs Race to Dispose of Nuclear Waste

December 2, 2010

New York Times

WASHINGTON — Aged nuclear plants in Vermont and Illinois may be playing the equivalent of musical chairs in a graveyard, vying for space at a dump in Texas whose owner hopes to accept radioactive waste from many other states.

Under an alliance struck 16 years ago between Vermont and Texas, tiny Vermont can fill up to 20 percent of the space at any low-level nuclear waste dump built in Texas’ wide-open spaces. Texas got the right to exclude other states’ waste. But as a company prepares to begin construction this month on the state’s first one, the arrangement may be jeopardized by swiftly changing circumstances.

A private company that won a contract to operate the plant, at a site in Andrews on the New Mexico border, wants to accept waste from the 36 states that do not have access to a dump for some of their waste now. And a commission made up of representatives from the two states that controls the planned dump has proposed a rule for accomplishing that.

Waste disposal is so difficult, says the company, Waste Control Services, that power plants and other generating sources have reduced their volumes sharply. And Vermont and Texas together produce so little that, the company adds, it would have to charge huge amounts per cubic foot and per unit of radioactivity to get its investment back.

The prospect of losing space to waste from generators in other states worries the incoming governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, who has vowed to shut down that state’s reactor, Vermont Yankee. He fears that when it comes time to tear it down, there will not be enough space for its contaminated components in Texas if other plants can ship waste there first.

"It’s a race for space," said Mr. Shumlin, a Democrat. "When push comes to shove, the first waste that arrives is the waste that gets in."

Not everyone in Vermont agrees. The state has two seats on an eight-member bi-state commission that controls the dump, and its delegates, chosen by Mr. Shumlin’s predecessor, support the change in rules for imported waste. By law, they say, the compact allows states to charge nonmembers much higher rates.

The Texan chairman of the commission, Michael S. Ford, says Vermont has little to worry about. "The Compact Commission will vigorously protect the interests of our sole and loyal partner, Vermont, in the compact and assure that their disposal needs are well known and fully accounted for," he wrote in an e-mail.

But nuclear experts in Vermont suggest it would be wiser for the commission to postpone a decision on imports until it determines how much space Vermont Yankee’s waste will need.

Nuclear operators around the country are watching with interest. In Zion, Ill., north of Chicago, for example, a company called EnergySolutions is decommissioning a twin-unit reactor and plans to put the least radioactive material in its own dump, in Clive, Utah, but wants to ship slightly more contaminated material to Andrews.

The arrangement between Vermont and Texas was brokered under federal laws passed in the 1980s to encourage states to establish dumps for low-level waste. The laws allowed the forging of "low-level waste compacts," under which a state could select a future dumping site from which other states would be turned away. (Maine was initially also part of the compact with Vermont and Texas but dropped out.)

Mr. Shumlin said he saw the hand of Entergy, a company based in Louisiana that owns Vermont Yankee, in the proposal to expand the compact. The company owns 10 other reactors in six other states, none of them with access to a low-level waste dump, including the Indian Point reactors in New York.

He suggested that the backers of the proposed rule were rushing to get it in place before he takes office on Jan. 6 and gains the power to replace the Vermonters on the commission who favor the new rule.

The day after he was elected governor last month, the commission approved a draft rule and put it out for public comment. The comment period will end Dec. 26, and the commission could vote anytime after that.

Mr. Ford denied there was any last-minute scramble, saying that the commission had been working on the proposed rule since last year.

Of the six panel members from Texas, two are said to oppose allowing waste imports from additional states and four are said to favor it. With the Vermonters, that points to a 6-to-2 vote in favor of the new rule.

Mr. Shumlin said he would seek to appoint two commissioners who opposed changing the rule. That would lead to a 4-to-4 tie and prevent the passage of the rule.

For its part, Entergy, which recently put Vermont Yankee up for sale because the state has refused to let the company keep running it beyond 2012, said it agreed that Vermont’s access should be protected.

The dump, expected to cost $75 million, will be a concrete-lined hole in the ground set in nearly impermeable red clay, which is supposed to prevent the waste from contaminating underground water supplies.

"They’re trying to get it done before the new governor takes office," said Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which opposes the dump.

Asked whether Gov. Rick Perry of Texas had taken a position, a spokesman said he expected that the commission "will ultimately make a decision that is in the best interest of Texas."

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