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Plans for West Texas high-level radioactive waste site halted


Highlights

Waste Control Specialists cites higher-than-expected costs of license review.

Company says it has to focus resources on matters related to its imminent sale.

Environmentalists opposed to the Texas radioactive storage site greet news with celebration.

An effort to collect and store high-level radioactive waste from around the country in West Texas has been suspended by a Texas company because of apparent money troubles.

Waste Control Specialists on Tuesday asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to suspend its safety and environmental license review for the facility. In a letter to federal regulators, company President Rod Baltzer asked that the license review be paused until the completion of the sale of company to EnergySolutions, which the company estimated would be closed by the late summer.

But the fate of that deal remains uncertain as the company grapples with a lawsuit by the U.S. government seeking to block the sale on antitrust grounds.

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“WCS must focus its limited financial resources on those expenditures necessary to safely run and maintain its currently licensed facilities, proceed through the trial set for April 24, and complete the sale to EnergySolutions,” Baltzer wrote.

He said the commission had estimated its application review would cost $7.5 million, “which is significantly higher than we originally estimated.” He said other public hearing costs to defend the project “are estimated to be considerable.”

A cost-sharing agreement with one of its partners “has been depleted” and Waste Control is “faced with a magnitude of financial burdens that currently make pursuit of licensing unsupportable,” Baltzer wrote.

Environmentalists greeted the news as a victory.

“We’re very pleased with this decision,” said Karen Hadden, director of the Austin-based Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, which opposed the storage plan, saying it could harm West Texas groundwater or pose transportation risks.

Waste Control, which already disposes of other kinds of radioactive waste at its site in Andrews County, had been trying to position itself as a short-term alternative to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site long ago selected by the federal government for storage of radioactive waste. Yucca had been bedeviled by decades of political quarrels, even as radioactive waste has piled up at the country’s nuclear power plants.

At present, nearly all of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was generated. All told, there is at least 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel stored nationally — enough to cover a football field to a height of approximately 20 feet. Texas’ two nuclear sites house roughly 2,400 tons of spent fuel.

RELATED: Click here for a special report on how state-funded research often tilts toward development

Baltzer wrote that the company “expects to go forward with this project at the earliest possible opportunity after completion of the sale,” but the announcement marks the first major halt in momentum for the politically connected company.

For years, Waste Control pushed, often successfully, for changes in state law and approvals from the state environmental agency to expand what kind of waste it could take. At the time, Harold Simmons, who controlled the company and died in late 2013, was a major contributor to the campaigns of Rick Perry in his runs for governor and president.

In March 2014, at the behest of then-Gov. Perry, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued a report on the state’s high-level radioactive waste storage options.

“A solution for on-site indefinite storage of (spent nuclear fuel) is clearly needed and should not be further delayed,” the report said.



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