By David Barer
For Reporting Texas
In a sparsely populated corner of West Texas near the New Mexico border, a private company has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build the nation’s newest radioactive waste disposal facility.
Next month, Waste Control Specialists is scheduled to open the Andrews County facility, the first in the country custom-built to accommodate the three levels of low-level radioactive waste, including the “hotter” materials. But critics are worried that the sheer size of the facility and the kind of waste it will store might pose long-term risks to the state.
Low-level radioactive materials encompass a wide range of solid materials. Everything from medical lab coats, rubber gloves and shoe covers to the hardware and residues from nuclear power plants qualify as low-level waste, which breaks down into A, B and C categories. The least radioactive — and often most voluminous — waste is class A, and the most radioactive is class C.
According to proponents of the project, the disposal facility will close a long-lived gap by consolidating low-level waste that now sits in thousands of different storage facilities.
“Here we are, at the cusp of opening this facility, and we think it’s a great moment because [radioactive waste] doesn’t have to be scattered all over the state threatening the environment,” said Edward Selig of Advocates for Responsible Disposal in Texas, an association of low-level radioactive waste generators and scientists.
The WCS facility is intended to take waste from states who join the Texas Low Level Radiation Disposal Compact Commission. So far, the compact only includes one other state, Vermont. It is overseen by a panel appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry as well as representatives from Vermont, which will dispose of its waste at the WCS facility. Harold Simmons, who owns WCS, is the top donor to Perry campaigns, at $1.12 million since 2001. He has given more than $18 million to conservative super PACs this election cycle, more than any other donor, The Wall Street Journal reported in March (paid registration site).
The compact commission recently made headlines when it passed a rule allowing 35 more states to join and potentially dispose of their waste at the Texas facility. The reports put the number of states at 35 because that is the number of states currently not affiliated with a compact. In fact, any state would be able to dispose of eligible waste in Texas, but states that join the compact get the best rates.
All waste disposed of at the Texas facility must undergo thorough inspection and tracking by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that issued the licenses specifying how WCS would build and operate the facility. Waste more radioactive than class C and waste of international origin are not allowed.
“The licensing process and the state scrutiny by the environmental regulators took twice as long as originally anticipated … about 10 years,” said Rickey Dailey, a spokesman for WCS. “It’s probably one of the most-analyzed pieces of property on the face of the earth.”
The waste will be encapsulated in reinforced concrete casks and buried in pits hundreds of feet deep in red bed clay, an almost impermeable material, Dailey said. The entire storage area will be encased with a concrete-reinforced liner.
Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition (SEED), an environmental group, believes the chance of a leak or contamination remains high.
She said that the six other low-level radioactive waste sites — including three other active sites, in Clive, Utah; Richland, Wash.; and Barnwell, S.C. — all have had leaks.
“And they are all facing millions and into the billions of dollars in cleanup costs,” she added. “Maybe [the WCS facility] is a more modern site, good, but the big overall picture is that this isn’t going to work.”
Once it reaches capacity, WCS will seal the site permanently. Capacity is defined as a total volume of 2.31 million cubic feet or a radioactivity level not exceeding 3.89 million curies, according to the TCEQ’s radioactivity material license. The amount of time it will take to fill the site to capacity is difficult to pinpoint because it depends on many factors, including how many states might join the Texas Compact.
The base disposal charge for class A waste can go as high as $250 per cubic foot, while the base charge for B and C waste is $1,000 per cubic foot. Curie charges and dose rate charges, which are charges based on radioactivity, both increase as radioactivity increases, according to the TCEQ’s interim disposal rate for the compact commission.
Besides being more profitable, B and C class wastes take up less volume per curie than A waste. Further, the high cost associated with the hardy construction of the site means WCS charges more to store A-level waste than similar facilities around the country, said Rick Jacobi, a Texas lawyer, nuclear engineer and consultant for WCS.
“The facility is so robust with its concrete, it is so deep, it has clay, reinforced rebar drainage systems and an engineered cap. All these things make it perfectly suitable place for B and C waste disposal,” Jacobi said.
A federal disposal facility next door, which isn’t regulated by the compact commission but is being built by WCS, will have a storage capacity of 26 million cubic feet — 10 times the state facility — or 5.6 million curies. It will likely store A waste.
Hadden said that the Andrews County site was becoming “the nuclear mega-mall of the country. It’s going to have everything.”
Hadden and many other critics of the project believe Texas taxpayers will ultimately assume the responsibility for cleaning up the project should some leak or other disaster occur. Dailey, the WCS spokesman, said that the company has put up $160 million of financial security in the event of a mishap. In comparison, BP estimates that the recent Gulf oil spill could cost the company approximately $7.8 billion.