A Dallas-based company wants to dispose of tons of uranium waste in far west Texas, a move critics say could make the state a dumping ground for the nation's radioactive waste.
Waste Control Specialists has applied to the state to bury low-level radioactive waste at its disposal plant in Andrews County, northwest of Midland on the New Mexico border.
If approved, the site would be eligible to receive tons of radioactive waste being stored in concrete silos at a long-abandoned uranium processing plant in Fernald, Ohio, near Cincinnati.
Utah and Nevada have already refused to accept the waste, despite Waste Control's assurances that the material would not pose a threat to humans or the environment.
"We are absolutely convinced of the safety of what we're proposing to do," said Dean Kunihiro, the company's senior vice president for licensing and regulatory affairs. "We feel very strongly about not only the legitimacy but the safety of what we're proposing."
The Fernald waste has a long, troubled history. The plant opened in 1951 and produced high-purity uranium metal, mostly for nuclear weapons, for four decades.
In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, demand for uranium dropped, and Congress officially closed the Fernald site.
Uranium waste has been stored at the site since 1952. The waste includes high concentrations of radium 226, a human carcinogen linked to bone and nasal cancer, as well as thorium, which is linked to lung cancer, according to federal records.
The federal government has been trying for years to remove the Fernald waste in an effort to clean the site and because the concrete silos holding the waste are deteriorating, records show.
As recently as August, the Energy Department — which owns the Fernald site — was pushing to bury the waste at the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas.
Nevada officials rejected the request.
"I will continue to oppose any effort by DOE to dispose of these unauthorized and highly dangerous wastes," Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval wrote in an Aug. 23 letter to the department's general counsel.
Last year, Utah also refused to accept the Fernald waste at its White Mesa uranium mill on the state's southeastern corner.
"It's obvious that stuff poses a danger. Otherwise, why would other states work so hard to prevent it from coming there?" said Margot Clarke, outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club's Lone Star chapter.
Waste Control officials dismiss such concerns.
"We don't feel that either the environment or public health is jeopardized in any way," Kunihiro said.
The company — the only company licensed to handle radioactive waste in Texas — applied in June to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The company is seeking to dispose of uranium mill tailings, the term used to describe the finely ground contaminated sand left over from the chemical process to extract uranium.
If approved, the Fernald waste — and perhaps radioactive waste from other storage sites — could be buried on 29 acres on the Waste Control site, records show.
It likely will take more than a year to process the company's application, said Richard Ratliff, the state's radiation program office in the state capital of Austin.
The state has already determined that the company's 4,000-page application lacks required data on the impact of potential accidents and information on the socioeconomic makeup of the area.
In addition to the uranium waste, Waste Control has applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a permit to dispose of low-level radioactive waste at the Andrews County facility.
"This process is going to essentially guarantee that we will become the nation's nuclear waste dump," stat Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, said.
Clarke voiced similar concerns.
"I think that most Texans don't know anything about this," she said. "They don't know that truckloads of nuclear waste are going to be on our highways from all over the country coming to West Texas.
"I don't think the average Texan wants the state to become a dump site for everyone else's most dangerous garbage."