WCS: Environmental study amid application process makes sense

Saturday, November 5, 2016

By Trevor Hawes
The Midland Reporter

Waste Control Specialists
Photo: Waste Control Specialists

A quartet of environmental groups last month wrote the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an attempt to sway the agency to dismiss Waste Control Specialists’ pursuit of temporarily storing high-level nuclear waste in Andrews County,

A quartet of environmental groups last month wrote the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in an attempt to sway the agency to dismiss Waste Control Specialists’ pursuit of temporarily storing high-level nuclear waste in Andrews County, where it currently has a facility to permanently store low-level nuclear waste, according to a recent Houston Chronicle report.

The request came on the heels of the NRC’s decision to move forward with an environmental impact study for the proposed site despite not having fully reviewed WCS’ license application. These are years-long processes that company publicist Chuck McDonald said are not unheard of to be conducted simultaneously.

"It’s going to take years for the license application to work its way through the system, and it’s going to take multiple years for the EIS process to play out. Both give the public many opportunities to participate," he said. "The sooner we start the public participation, the better."

He said it also makes sense for the NRC to allow an environmental impact study during the application review because the commission won’t grant licensure unless an environmental impact study is passed; thus, the application itself requires the study.

Environmental groups, such as Public Citizen and Sierra Club, say Congress never approved of a private company storing high-level nuclear waste despite Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz’s testimony before Congress in September that the Department of Energy believes it can do so without congressional action.

The DOE in October issued a request for information from interested private entities. WCS and its competitor, Holtec, which is pursuing high-level nuclear waste storage in New Mexico across the state line from WCS’ facility, are expected to respond to the DOE’s request.

McDonald said the funding source might require Congress’ approval and cited two ways the DOE could pay for interim storage while the government finds a place for permanent geologic storage, which could take up to 40 years. One source comes from electric bill surcharges collected for waste disposal. This fund is at $40 billion, but there could be a catch.

"Congress originally stipulated that that fund could only be used for disposal, not interim storage," McDonald said.

The second source is through the $500 million taxpayers pay per year to utility companies after the utilities sued the DOE for failing to take high-level nuclear waste, which the agency is required by law to do.

"The DOE is saying it makes more sense to use that settlement money for funding storage because it’s coming from taxpayers’ pockets," McDonald said.
He said WCS is optimistic that its Andrews facility will ultimately be granted a contract for interim high-level nuclear waste storage despite federal projects like this moving "at glacial speed."

"We have two things going for us that no one else in the country can say," he said. "First, we have an operating low-level radioactive waste disposal facility with experienced employees that do this every day. The process for interim high-level nuclear waste storage is very similar.

"Second, we have a community that is very supportive of this and understands it after 20 years and has passed a resolution of support because they know this material can be handled safely and in an environmentally appropriate fashion, and it can be a source of revenue for the county. They’re willing to entertain other radioactive waste storage options. Not many places in the U.S. can bring that to the table for the federal government, and Andrews County is unique in that aspect."

McDonald said in a Reporter-Telegram report this summer that WCS is pursing interim storage of high-level nuclear waste because there is a growing need to store the waste safely in one place while the federal government decides where to store it permanently. The DOE is required by law to take waste from utilities, but it has failed to do so. The waste from fully decommissioned nuclear power plants is scattered across the nation, and the stockpiles are growing as more nuclear plants reach the end of their useful lives, about 40 years.

Last month, the Fort Calhoun plant in Kansas shut down. Seven more are expected to cease operations through 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration. In the next 25 years, McDonald said between 50 and 60 plants would come offline — all of them without a place to permanently store waste after the Obama administration ended pursuit of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the waste’s home.

"They say if they restarted Yucca Mountain tomorrow, it would be about 25 years before they were ready to do permanent disposal there," McDonald said, adding that it’s best to move waste to a centralized location for safety and to give the space formerly occupied by nuclear plants back to communities.

Finding a home for nuclear waste nationally is the same process Texas had to go through, McDonald said.

"The state had an obligation to take waste from low-level radioactive waste generators. The state was unable to site a facility, so it passed legislation to contract with a private entity to meet its obligation. That’s the genesis for everything that’s WCS."

As for the environmental groups that want NRC to end WCS’ application process, "there’s a little bit of irony in the noise from those groups because they’re the ones who demand an opportunity to participate, but they are protesting the fact that this participation process has now begun," he said.

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