Business & Economy

Vermont sends first shipments of radioactive waste to Texas

Waste Control Specialists facility in Texas for radioactive canisters, WCS image

Earlier this month, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant shipped its first container of low-level radioactive waste to a disposal site in Andrews County, Texas.

Vermont regulators made a special agreement with Texas more than a decade ago to send all of the state’s low-level radioactive waste from the plant in Vernon. The facility in West Texas will someday entomb the nuclear plant’s dismantled body.

Two years ago questions were raised about the long-term capacity of the facility in West Texas after officials agreed to allow other states to dump radioactive waste at the site.

Vermont officials told the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission this week that they expect to have ongoing access to the facility. The commission, which has two representatives from Vermont, met in the Green Mountain State for the first time on Wednesday.

The commission was formed through a compact agreement signed between Texas, Vermont and Maine in 1993 to dispose of the Lone Star State’s nuclear waste and allow the two smaller states to tag along. Congress approved the compact in 1998, but Maine later pulled out as its only nuclear plant Maine Yankee was already decommissioned.

The compact commission was created to oversee and manage the disposal of low-level radioactive waste generated in Vermont and Texas, and it chose the company Waste Control Specialists, LLC (WCS) and its site in Andrews County for the waste storage.

The state of Vermont has paid $25 million to Texas and $2.5 million to Andrews County to ensure that 20 percent of the landfill’s capacity would be left for Vermont-generated waste. WCS began preparing the site in 2008; the commission met for the first time in Feb. 2009; and the landfill received its first concrete barrel of radioactive material in April.

The first shipment of radioactive material from Vermont arrived in Texas earlier this month, but it wasn’t from Yankee. The first container came from Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

Fletcher Allen spokesman Mike Noble said that the state’s largest medical facility shipped 29 units of cesium-137 in a 55-gallon concrete drum. The radioactive material, which was previously used to treat cancer patients before it was rendered obsolete, had been stored at the facility for roughly 20 years.

Vermont Yankee also sent its first shipment of radioactive resin earlier this month. The nuclear facility’s waste will account for more than 90 percent of all waste coming from Vermont, said Vermont Yankee representatives on Wednesday.

According to those representatives, the nuclear plant shipped a second barrel of waste on Wednesday and a third is scheduled to go out early next week.

A radioactive concern

In January 2011, the commission voted to allow 36 other states to store radioactive waste at the Andrews landfill. At the same time, the commission also passed an amendment that guaranteed Vermont a 20 percent share of that space.

Read the VTDigger story.

Richard Saudek, one of Vermont’s two commissioners, said in an interview that the commission spends most of its time ruling on whether the site should allow shipments, called imports. Commissioners are fixated on protecting space for Texas and Vermont generators to store this waste.

“Our main concern is that there be sufficient capacity to handle the in-compact waste,” he said. “We see ourselves as advocates for the compact generators.”

Rod Baltzer, president of WCS, told the commission not to worry.

“There should not be any anxiety from Texas or Vermont,” said Baltzer. “Whoever needs to ship us radioactive waste from Texas and Vermont will not be turned away.”

Vermont officials are worried, however, because they believe the state’s radioactive waste will grow as Vermont Yankee continues to operate and is eventually decommissioned.

“You’re not going to see a great deal of precision at this point,” said Saudek about projecting the state’s future need to store such waste. “When they dismantle Vermont Yankee and start sending the parts, they don’t know when that’s going to happen, and they don’t know how much waste they’ll generate before that point.”

Radioactive waste barrels

Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Service Sarah Hofmann said in a separate interview that Vermont regulators would keep a very close eye on the issue.

“The Texans have been very good about making sure that we have space for our waste, but I want to always be vigilant about keeping our space,” she said. “The people on the commission are very aware of what our concern was.”

‘We call ourselves the Texas solution’

That’s what Baltzer told the commission on Wednesday.  From nuclear to medical to high-level weapons waste, WCS stores some of the world’s most harmful substances.

“We’re the place that you can actually get rid of that material,” he said.

The 15,000-acre site straddles the Texas and New Mexico border and is spread out across arid desert. Of that total landmass, Baltzer said a mere 2 percent is used as a radioactive landfill.

“Only about 300 acres are really where we do most of those activities,” said Baltzer. “The rest of that is what we like to call buffer zone.”

Before the compact’s waste site was dug, or the new federal site next to it, WCS took more than 640 core samples to determine the ground’s geological characteristics. According to Baltzer, no aquifers were identified on the property. Surveyors did, however, find groundwater dating back 16,000 years. In this arid environment, said Baltzer, horizontal groundwater travel is four feet per 1,000 years.

Furthermore, added Baltzer, the water used at the facility is pumped to evaporation tanks, and the hazardous residue that remains is barreled up and dumped in the landfill.

Hazardous materials are stored in large concrete casks within a massive underground chamber, which is enclosed by consecutive layers of clay, plastic and concrete.

By the end of August, said Baltzer, the facility had disposed of 4,365 cubic feet of waste and 20,634 curies, which is a measurement for radioactivity.

While Baltzer said the facility might ask regulators to allow it to expand the size of its landfill in the future, the most limiting factor for the facility at this point is the threshold for radioactivity currently imposed by regulators.

“We haven’t asked for anything yet, but it should come as no surprise that I’d like more curies than I was originally allocated,” he told commissioners.

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Andrew Stein

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  • Barry Kade

    The State of Vermont paid $20 million for the privilege of using the site, plus the cost of a commissioner. That sounds like justification for a tax on VT Yankee.

  • John Greenberg

    All of the costs of generating “low-level” waste in Vermont, including compact fees, are paid by the generators in proportion to the volumes generated (VY generates 95+% of VT’s volume). The State is merely the collection agent. See 10 VSA 7067.

  • Sally Shaw

    This is in addition to the millions of dollars VT has already had to pay to the Feds for a federal nuclear waste depository (i.e. Yucca Mtn.), long since halted (under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.) These Vermont tax dollars are handed over for the privilege of having a huge radioactive waste generator in Vermont. Nuke energy too cheap to meter? As long as you ignore what’s being taken out of your back pocket while you sleep. Twice.

  • Howard Shaffer

    The cost of used fuel final treatment is collected on a pay-as-you-go basis. It is in the cost of the power sold.

    By law the Federal government is responsible for this function, but it has not removed the used fuel yet. The process has been blocked politically.

    Since the government has not done what it has already been paid to do, plant owners have sued to get the ratepayers money back, and won.

    If Sally wants the used fuel removed from Vermont Yankee, she should go to Nevada and convince Senator Reid to stop blocking Yucca Mountain.

  • John Greenberg

    Sally Shaw seems to be suggesting that Vermonters are paying twice for the radioactive waste being shipped to Texas.

    Just to keep the record clear, federal law draws a bright line between spent fuel, which it terms “high-level” waste and everything else, which it designates as “low-level.” The fees Sally mentions paid to the federal government pay for the disposal of spent fuel (generators are assessed 1 mil per kwh. According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel disposal is a federal responsibility. The fees paid for “low-level” waste disposal are a State responsibility (under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act), and under Vermont law, are paid by the generators of the waste. They include not only the compact fees, but also all disposal fees. There are no “Vermont tax dollars” involved in any of either, however.

    That said, nuclear power is heavily subsidized by the federal government, including, but not limited to the Price-Anderson Act’s gift of liability insurance coverage for catastrophic nuclear accidents. So I certainly agree with Sally that nuclear power is anything but “too cheap to meter.”

  • Bob Stannard

    The bigger question really is why is it that the taxpayers are on the hook for the disposal of the spent fuel?

    The answer is that this was a deal that was struck to help the industry out decades ago. The fact is that the one who makes the mess should be the one responsible for cleaning it up.

    Think of it like the garbage business. The hauler who picks up your garbage, and profits by doing so, has to pay a tipping fee at the landfill when he gets rid of it. The garbage business would be much more profitable if the haulers could get the taxpayers to pay the tipping fee.

    This is, in essence, what the industry did to the taxpayers many years ago and have complained ever since that it’s the taxpayer’s problem to get rid of the spent fuel; not the industry’s.

    This is arguably one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on the American taxpayer. The industry makes all the money; the taxpayer gets stuck with the disposal fees. Wonderful.

    Toss in the fact that the taxpayer also insures the industry from a catastrophic accident through the Price-Anderson Act, along with a regulatory agency that is bought and paid for by the industry and nuclear power’s a good deal for those in the business.

  • The taxpayers are not “on the hook” for disposal of spent fuel, and Mr. Stannard’s comment about the garbage business and tipping fees is completely irrelevant to Yucca Mountain.

    Producers and consumers of nuclear electricity have already paid the costs of Yucca Mountain, and the military was scheduled to pay some costs for disposal of naval and weapons material.

    In this case, the facts are terrifically easy to find, through a well-referenced article in Wikipedia, no less!

    Here’s a Wikipedia quote:

    The cost of the facility is being paid for by a combination of a tax on each kilowatt hour of nuclear power and by the taxpayers for disposal of weapons and naval nuclear waste. Based on the 2001 cost estimate, approximately 73 percent is funded from consumers of nuclear powered electricity and 27 percent by the taxpayers.

    In other words, the producers and consumers of nuclear powered electricity have already paid their part of the Yucca Mountain costs, and the military was to pay a portion of the costs for military waste.

    Actually, nuclear power has paid more than its portion. Another Wikipedia quote:

    With $32 billion received from power companies to fund the project, and $12 billion spent to study and build it, the federal government had $27 billion left, including interest. In March 2012, Senator Lindsey Graham introduced a bill requiring three-fourths of that money to be given back to customers, and the remainder to the companies for storage improvements.[72]

    Stannard has his payment facts completely wrong. Using his “facts,” Mr. Stannard was then able to manufacture his own conclusion: “This is arguably one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on the American taxpayer.”

    Nope. Not true.

    Look at the facts, first.

    I appreciate that John Greenberg, a nuclear power opponent, gets the facts correct about waste disposal. There can be no rational discourse if people make up their own facts to prove their points. In contrast to that sort of behavior, Greenberg’s comments add to the discussion.

  • Bob Stannard

    To Ms. Angwin, who funds the military?

  • Bob Stannard

    Also, Check out this video. Should the Ogallala aquifer become contaminated can we realistically believe that there will be no cost to the taxpayers?

    Ms. Angwin is right when she says that it’s the ratepayers that are on the hook for the cost of disposal as opposed to the taxpayers. I stand corrected. I should’ve said that this is arguably one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated on the American ratepayer.