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Nuke Waste: Get It While It's Hot!

Crony capitalism drops a dirty bomb on Texas

By Wells Dunbar, Fri., Sept. 24, 2004

Nuke Waste: Get It While It's Hot!

Prepare yourself for a long and convoluted journey, from the corridors of the State Capitol to the tiny West Texas oil boom-town-gone-bust of Andrews, and from the uranium mines of the Congo to the prairies of Nebraska. All are landmarks along the path of the state's new economic race: to import as much radioactive waste into Texas as your governor and his business buddies see fit.

When dealing with "low-level" (yet still extremely dangerous) radioactive waste, mostly from nuclear power plants, states often form compacts – agreements wherein one state plays host to the other's unwanted waste in exchange for compensation. This system was authorized by Congress back in 1980, with the intent that regions would find convenient sites close to home for centralized waste disposal. But in practice, the system has led to plans to ship nuclear material from sea to shining sea – Texas' compact partners are Vermont and Maine. Under the terms of the existing Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact, however, the Lone Star State would only import from New England the equivalent of 20% of our own generated waste volume over 50 years. (Vermont has one active, and Maine one decommissioned, nuclear power plant; Texas has two active plants.)

Yet tucked away in the Texas agreement is a provision granting the state's Compact Commission authority to import as much low-level radioactive waste as it likes from others outside our own compact, thus making a mockery of these caps. According to a briefing document from the office of the Governor, "Party states are limited in the volume of waste they can ship to Texas. Agreements made with a person, state, regional body, or group of states are not subject to the 20 percent limitation." So when the state of Nebraska found itself reamed to the tune of $151 million in fines for bungling its host-state role in its own compact with its Midwestern neighbors, Gov. Rick Perry's phone started ringing.

But let's back up a little bit ...

The 78th Texas Legislature saw a massive paradigm shaft ... er, shift, as the newly minority Dems had to pick their battles with the zealous Republican majority. Payback was on the agenda – both against the Ds and for the GOP's benefactors. As Colin Leyden, legislative director for state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, tells it, this climate brewed the "perfect storm" for faithful GOP donors like Harold Simmons and his Waste Control Specialists. From 1997 to 2000, Simmons' campaign contributions included $209,900 to Gov. Perry and $66,000 to George W. Bush, who "halted plans to build a state-run nuclear dump" – thus clearing the way for WCS' private-sector dump project in Andrews to take its place, according to Texans for Public Justice's Lobby Watch. (The state-managed facility proposed for Sierra Blanca, in the Trans-Pecos, had itself been an object of controversy for years.)

"You had new leadership try to pass a whole bunch of major legislation in Texas," recalls Leyden, and with the Dems tending to the home fires, House Bill 1567 "just slipped right through." With it, "WCS is making a play to become the main dump in the country." HB 1567 was cloaked in a star-spangled veil of national security, and thanks to millions of lobbying dollars, the claim was hammered home that, if left at its current sites (typically the plants themselves), radioactive material was a prime terror target. Even Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond got in on the act, claiming – just days before being cited for contempt for refusing to disclose documents relating to the TAB's very financing of the GOP takeover – that to not "develop a safe and secure disposal facility ... leaves open the possibility of terrorists using these radioactive materials for a 'dirty bomb.'"

But in fact, HB 1567 runs the risk of creating far more victims of nuclear catastrophe than it purported to protect – like all 22 million people in Texas. When signed into law by Perry last year, the bill privatized the compact's storage options, clearing the playing field for well-connected WCS, whose own best interest is to import as much radioactive waste into Texas as possible. With Nebraska's compact waste from several states and fines adding up to one hell of a hot potato, the Huskers recently contacted Perry "about facilitating an agreement between the Texas Compact Commission" and themselves. Also included in a summary of the conference call is the reminder that "No legislative action would be needed." All that's required is a majority vote by the Commission – whose members, yet to be named, will be selected by Perry himself.

In addition to the current permits for its Andrews site to hold not only compact waste but federal waste from the U.S. Department of Energy, WCS recently applied for an 11(e)(2) permit, allowing it to house the deadly leftovers of uranium ore enrichment, of which tons are scattered across the country, some predating the Manhattan Project. As if that weren't enough, The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reports that Louisiana Energy Services is considering locating a brand new uranium-enrichment center in Eunice, N.M., across the state line from Andrews.

"Many members stood up on the floor of the House, going, 'No, no, no, we're not going to be taking waste from all these other states,'" intoned Leyden. From the looks of it, that's about as far from the truth as Andrews is from the Congo.

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