LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — The company operating Texas' only radioactive waste dump site is asking state regulators to allow disposal of depleted uranium and triple the capacity of a burial site that accepts waste from dozens of states.
Although Waste Control Specialists says the uranium stored at its West Texas site would have only low-level radioactivity, opponents say the proposal would get the company another step closer to handling more dangerous material that wasn't part of the original license. The company has already been in talks with county officials about high-level waste disposal.
Meanwhile, the Dallas-based business has also asked the state to reduce the money it's required to have available to fund potential liability at the site — to about $86 million from $136 million.
"The public should be paying attention, but they're not," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat who has taken an active role in monitoring how the state handles radioactive waste. "We have less and less financial assurances and greater threat for more harm."
The depleted uranium, a by-product of enriched uranium that fuels nuclear power plants, would come from U.S. Department of Energy facilities, said company spokesman Chuck McDonald.
Although the uranium would still be classified as low-level, experts say the substance gets more radioactive as time passes and if disposed of improperly could pose health risks such as cancer.
To ensure safety, the depleted uranium would have to be disposed of at the greatest depth possible, said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
No date has been set for when the state's three environmental commissioners will consider the amendment.
City officials in Andrews, about 30 miles east of the site, said they weren't familiar enough with the proposal to comment.
"But we'll certainly delve into it to get more information," Andrews city manager Glen Hackler said. "The city consistently says we need to be cautious and take pretty extraordinary care."
McDonald said the company wants to reduce its liability funding because the facility is smaller than the one included in its original application. If the site expands, more financial assurance will be added, he said.
He added that the company's proposal to expand one of its two sites from 2.3 million cubic feet to 9 million cubic feet would likely not ever be utilized. He said the proposal came from concerns about capacity from state legislators and a commission that oversees the low-level waste site.
The Andrews County site currently only stores as much as 60,000 cubic feet.
Environmental groups have long worried about the local geology and contamination of underground water sources near the site, which can accept low-level waste from compact members Texas and Vermont as well as 36 other states.
The site could soon be the resting place for hotter material that's being stored at Texas' four commercial nuclear reactors.
In March, Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked lawmakers to explore establishing a location in Texas to store the high-level radioactive waste from these reactors. Two months earlier, House Speaker Joe Straus directed lawmakers to examine the economic impact of permitting such a site.
McDonald said the company has had conversations with Andrews County officials about high-level waste storage. Officials in Loving County, the nation's least populous county, have interest in building a storage site there.