Texas Welcomes Nuclear Discards

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wall Street Journal

A Texas commission Tuesday set in motion the importation of low-level radioactive-waste from 36 other states, a move long sought by the nuclear-energy industry and long opposed by environmentalists.

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which manages the state’s radioactive-waste dump, voted 5-2 to approve rules governing the process for accepting the out-of-state material.

The decision drew a quick response from the plan’s opponents, some of whom opposed the idea because the site is near the Ogallala aquifer that provides drinking water to several states.

"We’re going to consult with our lawyers and probably sue them," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog group. Mr. Smith, who said the commission violated rules in the public-comment process, was present at the panel’s meeting in Andrews County, in remote west Texas, where the storage site is located.

The plan enjoyed he backing of the nuclear industry, which is now limited to three other such storage sites in the U.S. "It’s a positive step forward," Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, said of the commission’s vote.

Controversy had surrounded the proposal in part because the dump, set to open by year’s end, was conceived and built to take waste from only two states—Texas and Vermont.

Even with the commission’s decision, the fight over the plan was likely to endure through court appeals.

The site will permanently store low-level radioactive waste—contaminated materials and equipment from nuclear plants, research laboratories and hospitals. The material includes everything from parts from dismantled nuclear-energy plants to booties worn by scientists working in labs where radioactive materials are present. More highly contaminated waste, such as spent fuel from power plants, wouldn’t be stored at the site.

The waste will be stored at the 1,338-acre site in concrete-reinforced underground units.

States are responsible for handling low-level radioactive waste produced within their own borders, but space for it is limited. And the three disposal sites for it in the U.S. don’t take all kinds of materials within the low-level category or can only take waste from certain states. That leaves 36 states without a permanent storage place.

The commission’s decision wasn’t a surprise.

"This is a major milestone," said Ralph Andersen, an official at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, before the vote. "It’s going to provide much needed space."

But some environmental groups said the plan would provide an incentive to the nuclear-energy industry to expand without coming up with better places to store its refuse.

"It’s defying logic to make more waste that we don’t have a good place to put," said Diane D’Arrigo, an expert with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a nonprofit group based in Takoma Park, Md. that advocates against new nuclear plants.

In Texas, activists also said that the state would be stuck with liabilities if the site leaks.

The controversy was tinged with Texas politics. Opponents say a conflict of interest exists between the commission, most of whose members were appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and the site’s owner, Waste Control Specialists LLC, whose main investor, Harold Simmons, is a donor to Mr. Perry.

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said his appointments are "based on an individual’s qualifications and willingness to serve" and that he expects their decisions to be in the best interest of Texas.

Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald said that Texas regulators already deemed the site safe, and thus granted a license for the project. The state will receive a cut of disposal fees as well as a $136 million fund to help pay for any future liabilities, he added.

Before the commission’s vote, Mr. McDonald said it had nothing to do with Mr. Simmons’s donations, which are made to Republicans all over the country. Rather, he said, it was about ensuring that economics for the project were solid.

"If the compact site is not economically viable there’s no place for that waste to go," he said.

Before voting on the rules Tuesday, the commission had addressed one concern Tuesday afternoon—from Vermont’s Democratic Gov.-Elect Peter Shumlin. Mr. Shumlin, who is scheduled to assume office on Thursday, had opposed importing radioactive trash from other states for fear that it would fill up the dump. On Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to reserve 20% of the space for his state.

Write to Ana Campoy at ana.campoy(at)dowjones.com

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