Inside Texas’s New Radioactive Dump

The new dump for low-level radioactive waste in west Texas will help relieve an overburdened site in Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
Mon December 10, 2012 10:20 pm

The opening of a 15,000-acre dump for low-level radioactive material in Andrews County is taking the pressure off of a Utah site that had been accepting the bulk of the country’s radioactive waste.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Judy Fahys trekked out to the new dump—owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons of Waste Control Specialists—and offered this description:

All you can see from the bottom of the massive pit is sky—big, blue desert sky. Concrete and plastic sheets blanket its squared sides, and a gravel road slopes up one wall to the red clay rim.

Though its shape is strangely precise, most people call this a dump. And someday the army of trucks that now scurries around its perimeter will fill it neatly with containers of radioactive waste from around the country.

What happens to the waste once it gets there? Well, it’s placed “a network of specialized cells—massive bowls carved 100 feet deep into the vast, flat West Texas desert. Dug out of hard-packed red clay, the disposal pits are swathed in steel-reinforced concrete and lined with heavy-duty plastic,” Fahys writes.

Fahys, in her sprawling piece, notes that, prior to the opening of Waste Control Specialists’ site, just three others existed in the country:

Two—one in Washington state and one in South Carolina—are strictly limited to taking waste from just 14 states. That leaves EnergySolutions’ mile-square site in Clive, Tooele County, to serve the bulk of the nation’s disposal needs. And it has. Nearly 97 percent of all radwaste shipped to commercial disposal in the past 20 years has wound up at the EnergySolutions site 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Roughly three dozen states had no practical alternatives for the radioactive discards from hospitals, universities, government cleanups and industrial plants, including everything but the fuel rods from nuclear reactors.

The Texas dump is good news for waste producers–hospitals, powerplants, etc–who have been sitting on radioactive materials for years. But it benefits Utah, where politicians have been reluctant to expand the types of waste that the EnergySolutions site accepts, most of all. 

Texas’s site cost $500 million to build and accepts waste from 38 states. Unlike EnergySolutions’ dump in Utah, the Texas site can accept a “full range of low-level radioactive waste—classes A, B and C.” (The Utah site can only accept type A, but has been under pressure for years to expand what it takes.) So, in other words, “Utah is no longer

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