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Nuclear Rubberstamping Commission to weaken rules on radioactive trash

“It’s not cotton candy”

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon consider new regulations that would allow WCS and other commercial sites to accept a higher level of nuclear waste than Texas currently allows.

The WCS facility is permitted to accept Class A, B, and C nuclear waste — categories that fall below high-level material like spent nuclear fuel. But certain material, much of it generated by the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, falls into what experts call a gray area between the lower-level categories and spent nuclear fuel. It has an equally ambiguous name: “Greater than Class C.”

“These are some of the most dangerous materials in the world,”   “It’s not cotton candy.”

”an effort over many years to make it look less threatening, and to sneak it in as less hazardous,”

West Texas is on track to get even more nuclear waste — thanks to the federal government.  A hazardous waste disposal company in Andrews County wants to handle more dangerous levels of nuclear waste. Federal agencies are pondering new rules that could allow more of it to come to Texas. Texas Tribune, BY ERIN DOUGLAS FEB. 10, 2021  To get rid of eight gallons of water, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $100,000.

It’s little more than half a tank of gasoline in a midsize car, but the radioactive shipment from South Carolina to a West Texas company last fall marked one change that could lead to more nuclear waste traveling to Texas — waste that, until recently, was considered too dangerous to be disposed of.

Much of the public debate surrounding Waste Control Specialists’ hazardous waste facility in Andrews County, on the New Mexico border, has focused on the company’s plans, with a partner, to store the riskiest type of nuclear waste: the spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants, which can remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Scientists agree that spent nuclear fuel should be stored deep underground, but the U.S. still hasn’t located a suitable site. Interim Storage Partners — a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, a subsidiary of one of the world’s biggest nuclear power companies — proposed bringing the spent fuel to a 332-acre site next to the WCS facility in Andrews County until a permanent storage site is found.

If the plan succeeds, it would be a big expansion for Waste Control Specialists, which has been disposing of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste — including tools, building materials and protective clothing exposed to radioactivity — for a decade. Interim Storage Partners’ website says it expects to get the federal approval for spent nuclear fuel storage, a major step in the plan, this year.

The idea still faces significant legal hurdles and stiff opposition from environmental groups, local oil companies, some residents and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who wrote to federal regulators last year asking them to deny the license application, stating that the proposal presents a “greater radiological risk than Texas is prepared to allow.”

The federal government and the companies involved say radioactive spills during transportation or storage that expose people or the environment to radiation are very unlikely to occur, but opponents fear human error, mechanical failures or geological changes could result in groundwater contamination.

But while the slow-moving plan is wrapped in political turmoil, lower-profile changes and proposals from federal agencies are giving Waste Control Specialists another avenue to accept more radioactive waste than it does today.

The wastewater that traveled from an old South Carolina nuclear weapons facility more than 1,000 miles in three truckloads in late September was an example: It was the first shipment made after a 2019 U.S. Department of Energy decision to reinterpret how different levels of radioactive waste are classified, allowing it to be disposed of at a commercial facility.

The decision lets the DOE categorize waste based on its properties and hazard level rather than how it was created, and allows radioactive waste from nuclear weapons production and government-sponsored nuclear energy research to be shipped to commercial sites such as the one in Texas, rather than indefinitely stored at a government site.

“They did this eight gallons as a sort of test,” said Tom Clements, the director of Savannah River Site Watch, an advocacy group that monitors the DOE’s site in South Carolina, a nuclear national security complex where materials for nuclear weapons were produced until 1991 at the end of the Cold War. “It is the foot in the door to taking more material to WCS.”

And the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is also considering new rules that could give Waste Control Specialists a green light to pursue bringing more dangerous radioactive waste to its commercial facility than currently allowed by state law.

The company is already permitted to accept low-level nuclear waste in Andrews County. The plan to build a facility to store spent nuclear fuel, the most dangerous kind, would bring what’s considered high-level nuclear waste. In addition, NRC staff recommended in October that the agency consider allowing commercial facilities like WCS to accept materials that fall into a third danger level between those two categories.

“The floodgates may be opening [in Texas],” Clements said.

That’s exactly what many environmentalists and local opponents feared after the hazardous waste facility was built in 1995. At the time, a company official told the community that it had no plans to expand to radioactive waste disposal.

“This is one of the difficulties of a community or state agreeing to one type of waste facility, because it can be changed on you,” said Rodney Ewing, a scientist and professor in nuclear security at Stanford University. “If it’s judged to be safe, that becomes the rationale for accepting more waste.”……………

Radioactivity in West Texas

Waste Control Specialists’ nuclear waste pursuit was the brainchild of now-deceased Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who slowly took over the company in the early 2000s as he became more invested in what was then a small hazardous waste disposal business in Andrews County.

Long before Simmons’ takeover, a Waste Control Specialists official was quoted in the Andrews County News in 1993 stating that the facility “would not take radioactive materials, nuclear waste, medical wastes, explosives or any liquids.”

But the company’s new owner soon began lobbying the Texas Legislature for permission to accept low-level nuclear waste at the facility. Simmons had clout at the Capitol: He was a major donor to then-Gov. Rick Perry. Even so, getting the permits for low-level nuclear waste, which typically includes a wide range of contaminated items such as radioactive gloves, shoe covers and medical tubes, took years of political maneuvering.

First, the Texas Legislature passed a bill making it legal for private companies to dispose of low-level nuclear waste in Texas — a bill that Perry signed into law in 2003. That sparked an intense effort to block the plans for low-level nuclear waste at the site by environmental groups and landowners who raised concerns over water contamination, transportation accidents and increased terrorist threat to the region.

Glenn Shankle, then the executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, recommended the site be permitted to dispose of lower-level nuclear waste — defying some of the agency’s scientists who said nearby groundwater could be at risk.

A few TCEQ staff members resigned over the nuclear waste proposal, among them Patricia Bobeck, a geologist who said she was pressured by higher-ups to find a way to approve the permit, despite her professional opinion that the geology of the area was at a high risk of erosion — which could increase the chance of environmental contamination. Bobeck said she retired from government rather than “have that permit shoved down my throat.”

The director, Shankle, later took a job as a lobbyist for Waste Control Specialists.

Today, Elizabeth Padilla, a school teacher in Andrews and mother of four who opposes the facility because she worries it could pose health risks to her family, points to the 1993 Andrews County News article as proof of what she calls a broken promise to the community.

“The people of Andrews gave them an inch, and they’re wanting to take miles and miles,” said Padilla. “They just can’t have enough.”………

“It’s not cotton candy”

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission may soon consider new regulations that would allow WCS and other commercial sites to accept a higher level of nuclear waste than Texas currently allows.

The WCS facility is permitted to accept Class A, B, and C nuclear waste — categories that fall below high-level material like spent nuclear fuel. But certain material, much of it generated by the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, falls into what experts call a gray area between the lower-level categories and spent nuclear fuel. It has an equally ambiguous name: “Greater than Class C.”

The waste represents an opportunity for disposal companies, industry observers said, as more nuclear power plants are decommissioned in favor of cheaper natural gas power plants or renewable sources like wind and solar. ………

Some experts, however, are skeptical of changing the rules. Bob Alvarez, a nuclear waste expert and senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, said he believes this category of waste is dangerous enough for long enough that it should be isolated in a geologic repository like the proposed Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada.

“These are some of the most dangerous materials in the world,” Alvarez said. “It’s not cotton candy.”

But even if NRC commissioners change rules to allow state-level oversight, it may not help WCS advance its plans. Abbott is opposed to bringing the “Greater than Class C” waste to Texas, according to his letter to the NRC. David McIntyre, a spokesperson for the NRC, said it’s not clear when agency commissioners will make a decision on the staff’s recommendations.

Opponents of the proposal say, either way, the company’s efforts to get permission to handle the waste represents another attempt to boost its profits by taking more dangerous waste.

“[It’s] an effort over many years to make it look less threatening, and to sneak it in as less hazardous,” said Karen Hadden, the executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, a sustainable energy alliance of businesses and organizations. “[Waste Control Specialists] continues down this path of ever expanding their radioactive empire.” https://www.texastribune.org/2021/02/10/nuclear-waste-government-rules/

 

February 11, 2021 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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