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War of Words Over Proposed Nuclear Fuel Waste Site Heats Up

Anti-nuclear groups seize on missing information in license application from Waste Control Specialists, which says it's normal to add information to a complex, voluminous application.

An overhead view in 2012 of Waste Control Specialists' low-level radioactive waste storage facilities near Andrews, Texas.

A Texas company seeking a license to accept and store highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel pushed back late last week against opponents’ suggestions that it was ill prepared to safely to do the job.

“Give me a break,” said Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, adding that the company was “pleased” with the status of its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The company, formerly owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, currently stores low-level nuclear waste in Andrews County, northwest of Midland. It wants permission to open its gates to tens of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel — a massive expansion that it’s pitching as a temporary answer to the question of where the nation will safely house the waste currently filling up reactor sites. It filed the application in late April.

Last Thursday, a pair of environmental and consumer groups — Public Citizen and the SEED Coalition — blasted the proposal, and said a recent letter from the NRC fueled their safety concerns.

Mark Lombard, who oversees spent fuel management and safety safeguards for the agency, wrote that the company’s application “does not contain sufficient technical information” for the agency to kick it to the next stage of the process: a technical review.

His letter asked the company to provide many more details about its plans, including information about safety of its dry storage casks and descriptions of the facility’s security systems. The company must comply by late July or risk halting the application process.

“WCS failed to provide a lot of the information required by the NRC to assure this is a safe site,” Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas chapter, said in a statement. “Why should we trust a company that can’t get its paperwork complete to safely construct and operate a facility that could hold up to 40,000 metric tons of lethal nuclear reactor waste for 40 or more years?”

But McDonald pushed back and called the information request standard procedure — and expected.

“We submitted a license application that was 3,000 pages long – 3,000 and change,” he told Texas Weekly. “If we’re going to jerk off like this every time we get a letter from the NRC from Smitty – I mean, we haven’t even started the technical review process.”

The company’s “admittedly aggressive” timeline hasn’t changed, McDonald said. It aims to start construction in 2019, and to start accepting the waste by 2021.

The commission also downplayed the significance of the request.

“It is not at all unusual for an acceptance review on a spent fuel storage application to result in requests for supplemental information,” spokeswoman Maureen Conley said in an email. “It’s a standard process that was implemented to maximize the efficiency of NRC resources, and identify upfront whether an application is complete before we begin our technical review.”

Dale Klein, associate director of the University of Texas Energy Institute and the former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said it was “not that unusual” for the commission to request more information. He added, however, that such issues are often resolved informally.

“It demonstrates a little bit of a lack of communication between the applicant and the regulator,” he said of the letter to WCS.

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