As aging nuclear reactors retire, their most radioactive steel, concrete and other components must be shipped for burial somewhere. Last year alone, utilities announced that they would retire five reactors. For instance, the owner of Vermont Yankee, a 41-year-old reactor that is scheduled to close soon, will probably ship thousands of tons to Texas.
So far, WCS has a monopoly. For 95 reactors in 29 states, WCS is the only place that will take some categories of low-level waste. WCS looks likely to collect a substantial part of the disposal fees paid for nuclear waste nationally, which the industry puts overall at $30 billion.
The site itself has a base layer of nearly waterproof clay, then a layer of concrete reinforced with steel and then three layers of plastic. When the waste, loaded into concrete containers, fills the pit, it will be topped by a 40-foot-thick covering cap that includes more concrete, then more clay and finally a “bio-intrusion cap” to keep out burrowing prairie dogs.
|David Tudor, a radiological safety technician, stands by with a Geiger counter.|
Disposing of low-level nuclear waste is not quite as hard as storing used nuclear fuel, which for some years looked likely to go to Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but is now in a state of uncertainty, with no program to find a repository and no decision by Congress on who should even attempt that task.
But the tale of low-level waste — items as diverse as contaminated tools, protective clothing, used-up filters for radioactive water, plus a smattering of hospital and laboratory wastes, and, soon, a flood of demolition debris — is a government misadventure similar to the high-level waste problem. In the early 1980s, Congress told the states that the federal government would find a place for the fuel, and that the states should unite in multistate compacts to establish shared waste dumps.
|A small front-end loader spreads aggregate between containers holding radioactive waste|
Many organizations have tried for years under the compact system to establish low-level waste disposal sites, but the Texas site is the first and only one to open.
Mr. Baltzer said 10 attempts had been made, with a total expenditure of $1 billion. There’s an incredibly high barrier to entry. WCS succeeded in part by making a virtue of the region’s salient characteristic, drought. Intrusion by water, which would spread the waste, will be minimal.
|A sample of the impermeable Triasic Red Bed Clay|
that is below the dump at Waste Control Specialists.
WCS is more sophisticated than other waste sites for spent nuclear fuel used by the multistate compacts. The Atlantic Compact, comprising South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut, uses a long-established dump near Aiken, S.C., called Barnwell, while the Northwest Interstate Compact covers a region with just one operating commercial reactor, in Washington State. Utah licensed a site near Clive, about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, operated by EnergySolutions, and it is open to all, but it takes only the least-contaminated material.