At a site in Andrews, Texas, about half an hour from the state’s western border to New Mexico, nuclear waste from across the country is stored ahead of its final disposal without a federal license.
Final disposal happens at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a repository near Carlsbad, which serves as the permanent resting place for transuranic (TRU) nuclear waste generated during nuclear weapons research and production along with other radioactive activities.
This waste mostly consists of clothing materials and equipment irradiated during operations at national laboratories and other facilities owned and overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Under an exemption from the Nuclear Regulator Commission, private company Waste Control Specialists (WCS) can hold that waste without an official license temporarily before it heads to WIPP.
And in a May 27 decision posted in the Federal Register, the NRC recommended that could continue until at least 2024.
Here’s what we know about Waste Control Specialists’ ongoing plans to store TRU waste in Andrews, Texas.
Why is nuclear waste held at the facility?
In 2014, a mispackaged drum of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico ruptured in WIPP’s underground, releasing radiation into the air.
This led to a three-year shutdown of WIPP’s waste disposal operations, and suspension of its acceptance of waste from Los Alamos.
But operations at the Lab continued and the federal government and State of Texas reached an agreement to store the waste being generated in Andrews, Texas while the WIPP facility recovered from the 2014 event.
WIPP reopened and began accepting waste again in 2017, and the waste being stored at WCS was sent in.
WCS applied for an extension of its TRU waste storage program multiple times, maintaining its exemption until Dec. 23, 2018, then 2020 and again to 2022.
The latest proposal requested the exemption be maintained until Dec. 31, 2024, which the NRC after analysis deemed would have “no significant impact” to human safety or the environment.
While much of the Los Alamos waste was shipped of WCS to WIPP, some remains that does meet the U.S. Department of Transportation’s shipment criteria after it was strengthened in the wake of 2014.
“While the WIPP Facility has resumed operations, some of the LANL Waste at the WCS Site cannot be shipped off the WCS Site at this time because it does not meet DOT shipping requirements,” read the NRC’s report.
How much nuclear waste has the company shipped to WIPP?
As of May 28, the latest DOE data showed 34 shipments from Waste Control Specialists’ facility since WIPP opened in 1999.
Most of the waste from WCS to WIPP was sent during 2017 and 2018, which had 18 and 13 shipments, respectively, records show, as WIPP reopened.
There weren’t any shipments reported yet this year as of Thursday, and only one reported in all of 2021.
In 2019, two shipments were sent from WCS to WIPP.
How does that compare to other sites?
The WCS waste stream is one of WIPP’s smallest, but the largest from a private company.
Records show there were 32 shipments from the GE Vallecitos Nuclear Center since 1999, and five from the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.
The rest of the facilities that send waste to WIPP are owned and operated by the federal government through the DOE.
The biggest shipper of waste to WIPP is Idaho National Laboratory with 6,662 shipments, followed by the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver with 2,045 shipment and the South Carolina’s Savannah River Site with 1,692 shipments.
Los Alamos has the fourth-most shipments sent to WIPP with 1,518.
The rest of WIPP’s 13 generator sites sent less than 1,000 shipments each since the repository was opened.
Why is storing nuclear waste at the site is deemed safe?
After reviewing WCS’ proposal for an extension, the NRC said it did not expect effluent releases or radiation doses would not change during continued waste storage and will maintain regulatory limits “as low as reasonably achievable.”
The proposal did not involve expanding the WCS facility, so the NRC concluded no additional land would be disturbed.
No further environmental analysis was warranted by the proposal, the NRC reported.
“The NRC concludes that the proposed action will not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment,” read the report. “Accordingly, the NRC has determined not to prepare an environmental impact statement for the proposed action.”
What else is Waste Control Specialists planning?
The company was issued a license last year by the NRC to expand the facility and store about 40,000 metric tons of high-level spent nuclear fuel.
That license issuance is being debated in court via a lawsuit from multiple government watchdog groups.
The project mimics a similar proposal by Holtec International to store up to 100,000 metric tons of the high level waste at a new facility it hopes to build near Carlsbad and Hobbs in New Mexico.
Without a permanent disposal location for the high-level waste, as only TRU waste can go to WIPP, critics were concerned WCS’ and Holtec’s location could become “defacto” final resting places for the waste.