Waste Control Specialists (WCS) yesterday announced a proposal for it to set up an “interim” storage site for the nation’s high-level radioactive waste at its existing “low-level” radwaste and hazardous waste site in Andrews County, Texas, a stone’s throw from New Mexico.
Guess Andrews County has given up on the tourist trade.
Not the New Mexico is much better. The proposed radwaste storage site would be next door to Urenco’s uranium enrichment plant, officially in Eunice, but a strong one-iron shot from WCS.
Well, maybe Texas and New Mexico could join together and promote a strange sort of nuclear tourism.
Former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici once envisioned a nuclear corridor stretching from the Texas border to the WIPP site in Carlsbad about 60 miles away. Domenici’s dream is becoming dangerously close to reality.
The WCS proposal, explained in a series of slick brochures, is basically to build a parking lot on its site where it will house an endless array of transport casks containing high-level radioactive waste from reactors across the country. WCS thinks this “interim” site would exist for 60 years, after which the waste would then be moved again to some permanent repository that doesn’t exist yet. Sure. And I’m going to win tomorrow’s $450 million Powerball drawing without buying a ticket.
Unlike the previous Private Fuel Storage site proposed in Utah, which actually obtained NRC approval at one point, the WCS proposal isn’t to set up a private site in which WCS would negotiate with each nuclear utility to accept its waste. That idea fell apart because such a private site would mean liability for the waste would remain with the utilities, and no utility is willing to accept such liability–especially if the waste has to be transported hundreds or thousands of miles. Instead, WCS wants the Department of Energy to bless the proposal, accept title to the waste, and then allow the waste to be transported to Andrews County.
That’s potential problem number one with the proposal. For DOE to do that would almost certainly require Congressional approval. And while Sen. Harry Reid, who has been steadfast and effective at blocking the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level waste site probably would not object–and might even applaud–the idea of the waste going to Texas, it’s not clear yet whether the entire Texas delegation is going to be ecstatic about becoming the nation’s dumping ground for all things nuclear.
Potential problem number two is whether DOE will like the idea of taking title to the waste and then handing it over to a private company. Maybe. On the other hand, WCS is not exactly an administration favorite. As described by Hannah Northey of E&E publishing,
WCS–a subsidiary of Valhi Inc.–grabbed headlines in recent years in the political realm, as it was formerly led by Harold Simmons, a billionaire majority owner who died in December at age 82. Simmons once called Obama the “most dangerous man in America” and ranked as a top contributor during the 2012 presidential cycle, giving millions of dollars to a super political action committee backing former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
WCS is now owned by Simmons’ two daughters.
Potential problem number three: WCS says that Andrews County supports the idea and thus the proposal meets the community consensus concept recommended by Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on nuclear waste and in S. 1240, last year’s radioactive waste bill that went nowhere in the Senate. Indeed, the Andrews County County Commissioners voted unanimously last month in favor of the proposal. There isn’t much business, or tax money, anywhere else in Andrews County.
But consensus–at least any consensus that means anything–entails far more than a vote from a local governing body held hostage by a company’s tax revenue. The state needs to be involved, both in terms of its regulatory bodies and its elected bodies. Given the political make-up of Texas these days, it is entirely possible the state will be willing to change its unofficial slogan from “Don’t Mess with Texas” to “Texas: Dump on Us.” But that’s not a given.
And since the WCS site is on the New Mexico border, one would presume a valid consensus process would include that state. Yes, New Mexico approved the Urenco enrichment plant and sat back while WCS built its “low-level” radwaste dump, but former Sen. Domenici doesn’t run the state any more. And high-level radioactive waste is a different beast entirely, as any Nevadan could tell you. That’s especially so since there is little to no assurance that an “interim” site wouldn’t become permanent. Once someone has taken the waste, movement to find, characterize and develop a permanent site can expected to become even slower than it already is.
Potential problem number four is endemic to any “interim” radioactive waste site. That is the issue that the waste has to be moved from the reactor sites where it’s at–mostly east of the Mississippi River–to the “interim” site. And then, if it is truly an “interim” site, the waste has to be moved again.
Radioactive waste is much safer when it’s still than when it’s moving down a highway or railway at 60 miles an hour. While the nuclear industry likes to claim that the tiny bit of transport that has been done to date has been relatively accident-free, the reality is that it hasn’t been entirely accident-free. It’s only been non-catastrophic accident-free. But it only takes one catastrophic accident to upset that maxim.
And, there have been serious accidents involving shipments of radioactive materials, including one that spilled onto the interstate leading to Norfolk, VA causing the highway to close for days while the road was dug up and replaced. And that was “low-level” waste.
For an “interim” site to be worth it to WCS financially, and to the nuclear industry in terms of alleviating its radioactive waste PR nightmare (not to mention its current liability for the waste), there would have to be tens of thousands of shipments to the site–far more than have been attempted in the entire history of the nuclear age combined. That low accident rate will seem a lot higher if all those shipments are attempted.
Clean energy activists have argued for years that moving the waste twice makes no sense at all, and only increases the risk to the public. The last time Congress tried to approve such a plan, back in the 1990s, President Clinton agreed and vetoed the bill. The Senate sustained his veto by one vote.
And shouldn’t all those on the transportation routes, who would be exposed to the waste when it is most dangerous–when it’s moving at high speeds through their communities–be part of the consensus process? The idea of Fukushima Freeways, of a Mobile Chernobyl, has never resonated well among the population at risk of a transport accident, no matter how much the nuclear industry tries to downplay it.
None of this means the proposal necessarily won’t become reality. WCS is used to getting its way. But WCS has been getting its way in Texas; and a national “interim” storage site for lethal radioactive waste is, properly, a national issue. That’s a different playing field than WCS is used to, and will be much more difficult for it to navigate.
All the nuclear trolls will now leap to conclusions with red herring arguments like “you’re against Yucca Mountain, you’re against Andrews County, where would you put it” (as if it’s up to a small non-profit to conduct the scientific research to ensure that the waste ultimately does end up in a place that holds a decent chance of being able to isolate that waste from the environment for milennia).
The clean energy/environmental community has long held a unified position on high-level radioactive waste, a position that was hammered out in a multi-year process several years ago. It is that, first of all, no more waste should be generated. Beyond that, the waste should remain, in hardened dry cask storage, at the place of generation. You can read this position, and see the long list of signers, here.
As Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, explained his opposition to the WCS proposal, “The federal government has made a mess of nuclear waste policy. “The highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors should be stored on site in hardened configurations while Washington sorts it out. Putting the deadliest nuclear waste on the roads needlessly increases risks. It is not part of the answer; rather, it will add to the problem.”
February 10, 2015
Your contributions make publication of GreenWorld possible. If you value GreenWorld, please make a tax-deductible donation here and ensure our continued publication. We gratefully appreciate every donation of any size.
Comments are welcome on all GreenWorld posts! Say your piece above. Start a discussion. Don’t be shy; this blog is for you.
If you’d like to receive GreenWorld via e-mail, send your name and e-mail address to email@example.com and we’ll send you an invitation. Note that the invitation will come from a GreenWorld@wordpress.com address and not a nirs.org address, so watch for it. Or just put your e-mail address into the box in the right-hand column.
If you like GreenWorld, you can help us reach more people. Just use the icons below to “like” our posts and to share them on the various social networking sites you use. And if you don’t like GreenWorld, please let us know that too. Send an e-mail with your comments/complaints/compliments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
GreenWorld is crossposted on tumblr at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/nirsnet