(AP Photo/Vermont Yankee Corporation)
(AP Photo/Vermont Yankee Corporation)
Thursday September 27, 2012

MONTPELIER -- Nearly 20 years after the Vermont and Texas Legislatures first agreed to have Vermont ship low-level radioactive waste to the Lone Star State, the first shipments of waste have been made.

A 30-gallon drum containing wastes from the University of Vermont and Burlington's Fletcher Allen Health Care hospital was received and placed in its permanent home in a West Texas disposal site earlier this month, officials said Wednesday at a Statehouse meeting of the Texas-Vermont Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission.

The generator of more than 90 percent of Vermont's low-level waste, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon made its first shipment in September, with two more to be completed by next week.

"We finally have a compact. It's real. It's open and we're shipping waste there. It's pretty amazing," said Sarah Hofmann, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, which handles utility matters for the state.

Plans for such a compact began to germinate in the 1980s after Congress passed a law saying the federal government would take responsibility for long-term storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste -- mainly spent fuel from nuclear reactors. With the Yucca Mountain waste project in Nevada stalled, the federal government still hasn't fulfilled that promise, and high-level waste is being stored at reactors around the country, including at Vermont Yankee.

The states, meanwhile, were left to handle low-level radioactive waste -- everything from clothing and equipment used by nuclear plant workers to instruments and materials used by hospital nuclear medicine departments and in some university research.

Texas joined with Vermont and Maine, initially in hopes that signing up with two small states would allow Texas to block others from shipping their much larger volumes of waste there. Since then, the company that developed the site in Andrews County, Waste Control Specialists, has persuaded Texas lawmakers and regulators to allow it to welcome waste from elsewhere.

That has led to stepped up efforts by officials in Vermont, which has paid $27.5 million to help develop the Texas site, to ensure that Vermont will not lose access to any of the 20 percent of the waste site it initially was promised. On that score, "We're not concerned; we're vigilant," Hofmann said.

Meanwhile, Maine has dropped out of the compact. Its lone reactor, Maine Yankee, closed in 1996. All of its low-level waste was shipped elsewhere and it no longer needed space in the Texas site. "It was just a matter of timing," Hofmann said.

Wednesday's meeting included several critical comments and questions from Karen Hadden, executive director of the SEED Coalition, a Texas environmental group. She said in a later phone interview that her group is worried that the waste facility may run out of room and need to be expanded. Group members also are worried about groundwater around the site and about transporting the waste along Texas highways, she said.

WCS, the company running the Andrews County site, maintains it can be run in an environmentally sound manner.