Environmental groups, state regulators, a waste company and others oppose a federal plan to let disposal sites that aren’t specifically licensed for radioactive waste request an exception to take in the waste.
(CN) — In a far-flung corner of West Texas, just off a lonely oilfield highway on the state’s dusty border with New Mexico, a small facility that the New York Times once dubbed “America’s most valuable hole in the ground” has drawn the ire of environmentalists for years.
The Waste Control Specialists facility in rural Andrews County has bold ambitions to become the nation’s primary home — at least for the next few decades — for used nuclear power plant fuel, a much more radioactive type of waste than the “low-level” waste that’s already been housed there for years.
Though the government has so far concluded the plan would be safe, critics, like longtime environmental attorney Terry Lodge, have railed against it for years.
So, imagine Lodge’s surprise to find himself now agreeing with the waste company’s opposition to a new and separate proposal from federal regulators that many worry could lead to radioactive waste being thrown out with the garbage at local landfills across the nation.
“Yes, it is a strange ally,” Lodge said with a laugh during a recent interview.
The new proposal is far from just a Texas issue, but for a state with a long history of fights over nuclear waste, it’s notable just how much agreement there is among a variety of stakeholders that the plan from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a bad idea.
In an unusual and perhaps unlikely alliance, environmental groups, state regulators, the Texas waste company and others in the Lone Star State have all come out against the new plan.
“We regret to find ourselves in such definitive opposition to an NRC staff proposal,” Waste Control Specialists wrote last month in formal comments to regulators. “We are not accustomed to being in this position.”
The proposal centers on a type of nuclear waste colloquially referred to as “very low-level” waste.
Though the term isn’t a formal one, very low-level waste can refer to things like contaminated debris or soil from shuttered nuclear power plants. The NRC identifies this type of waste as the least hazardous variety on the spectrum and says it generally only contains “residual” radioactivity, but others have argued the phrase is a deceptive one that glosses over the health dangers of even mildly contaminated waste.
The NRC’s proposed change would reinterpret existing regulations to let disposal sites that aren’t specifically licensed for radioactive waste request an “exception” to take in the waste. Once an exception is granted, the facilities would have a blanket authority to receive the waste without a further case-by-case review of the shipments.
Critics worry that local landfills or even individual landowners could try to get in on the action, bringing the waste to facilities that aren’t equipped to handle it.
“I mean, it’s monstrous,” said Lodge. “You’re talking about a guaranteed disaster.”
Though a variety of groups and entities in Texas are hoping to stop the plan, their specific arguments against it vary widely.
Dozens of environmental and advocacy groups from across the U.S., including a handful in Texas, penned a letter to regulators in July urging them to cancel the proposal, saying it’s simply too dangerous.
“This proposal wants to let that waste out into the regular garbage, which could get recycled, could get burned, could get buried into landfills but then leach into your water,” said Diane D’Arrigo, a longtime environmental advocate with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, one of the groups that signed onto the letter.
“If they get away with this, this is truly getting away with murder,” she said.
An NRC spokesperson dismissed those kinds of allegations as unfounded.
“It’s not a proposal to put the nation’s nuclear waste into your county landfill,” spokesperson David McIntyre said. “The material we’re talking about is not very radioactive at all.”
The intention of the proposal, McIntyre said, is that the very low-level waste would only go to certain EPA-approved hazardous waste sites, not just any local landfill or plot of land. The NRC’s full proposal echoes that assertion.
While the proposal might create a new process, transfers of nuclear waste to “alternate” disposal sites have happened before, McIntyre said, and regulators would only expect a “handful” of sites to try to get an exception to take in nuclear waste under the new method.
“So it would save our resources, taxpayer money, and it would make it a little more efficient for both the waste generator and the hazardous waste facility receiving it,” he said.
Still, environmental groups are quick to note that an “intention” is far from a guarantee.
Meanwhile, the Texas waste company has warned that the plan could lead to 90% or more of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste winding up at unlicensed facilities.
“A very real result of the Proposed Interpretive Rule process could be an unintended increase in concentrations and doses of radioactive material at unlicensed disposal sites all across the country,” Waste Control Specialists wrote in its comments to regulators. “At a minimum, it was incumbent upon staff to fully assess such issues, and it has not done so.”
The proposal could also chip away at the company’s bottom line, as nuclear plants might prefer to ship their waste to a closer, cheaper facility instead of sending it all the way to West Texas.
In Andrews County, where the WCS site is located, local officials have long supported the company and its plans to bring more radioactive types of waste to Texas. Those officials have also joined the chorus against the NRC’s new plan.
“Yeah, it would take money away from WCS, and in return it takes money away from us, but set money aside, that’s not my biggest concern,” said Andrews County Judge Charlie Falcon. “It’s just not safe.”
“This would change everything about the way we do business in Texas,” said Ashley Forbes, director of the radioactive materials division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. “We don’t see a need for a change at this point.”
The TCEQ worries the new proposal would at a minimum create regulatory confusion and lead to new procedures that its staff aren’t necessarily trained for.
Forbes said that while the proposal wouldn’t necessarily be dangerous to public health or the environment, it would require the agency to completely rethink how low-level waste is managed within the state. Moreover, she said the agency isn’t even clear on why the NRC is pursuing the change in the first place.
“I think they should come to the table and be very clear on what problem they’re trying to solve,” Forbes said. “That would be helpful.”
McIntyre, the NRC spokesperson, pointed to two nuclear waste management companies that have voiced support for the proposal, Idaho-based U.S. Ecology and EnergySolutions in Utah. Neither company responded to questions about the proposal. A uranium mining company active in South Texas has lodged its support for the proposal as well, saying it would help with the decommissioning and reclamation of old mines.
McIntyre said the plan was not prompted by a request from the nuclear industry.
“To be honest, I don’t know that I could pinpoint any particular stimulus that prompted this,” he said. “It’s grown out kind of organically from an effort we had looking at our low-level waste regulations for several years.”
Waste Control Specialists and the environmental groups have asked the NRC to withdraw the proposal, while the TCEQ has suggested the commission either abandon the idea or at least start over with a more thorough process for an entirely new regulation.
For now, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed back the proposal’s timeline – federal regulators recently extended a public comment period on the plan to late October.
“We are discussing with our other state partners and NRC and we hope that they’ll come up with something different or at least be responsive to our comments and the comments of all the stakeholders in this process,” Forbes said.