Andrews County is about to get a big delivery from the federal government.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico will be shipping about 1,000 barrels of radioactive junk to the rural west Texas site operated by Waste Control Specialists, a hazardous waste disposal company.
Federal officials say relocating the waste is necessary to meet a June deadline for removing the remaining barrels of plutonium-contaminated debris from laboratory grounds before wildfire season peaks.
But the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, NM — the final resting place for the green-glowing rubbish — is currently shuttered while authorities determine the cause of a Feb. 14 radiation leak (the first ever at the facility). So the private Texas facility will foster the waste in the near-term.
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Housing the federal government’s nuclear weapons program refuse is not cause for celebration. But it may not be cause for panic, either.
WCS is licensed to handle the radioactive material by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which also provides regular oversight of its facilities. According to the Carlsbad Current-Argus, the WCS site has operated since 2009 without any leaks or incidents.
Federal and state officials agree that secure and compliant storage can be achieved by WCS and correspondence between state and federal regulators confirms the temporary nature of the arrangement, limited to one year only.
Transporting such wastes increases opportunities for exposure, but they are still rare, according to a recent report by TCEQ which found that of 3,000 shipments of spent nuclear fuel between 1970 and 2010, only nine accidents occurred, only five of which “involved radioactive material and in none of those accidents was any radioactive material released.”
But like the move itself, this solution is only temporary.
The federal government needs to develop permanent solutions for the disposal of radioactive debris that will render future rounds of musical chairs unnecessary.
That’s a result the government should deliver sooner rather than later.