By James Burgess for OilPrice.com
Each year the US spends an estimated $30 billion on nuclear waste disposal, yet due to the incredibly high barriers to entry into the market, there are almost no companies that offer disposal services. Many organizations over the years have tried to establish low-level waste disposal sites, but only one site has actually opened, giving the controlling company, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) a monopoly of the market and allowing them to earn a substantial portion of the $30 billion.
Rodney Baltzer, President of WCS, explained to the NY Times that the company has dug a huge pit in Andrews Country, Texas, with other planned to be dug over the next few years, into which a base layer of nearly waterproof clay has been set. Then a layer of concrete was poured on top, reinforced with steel, and then three layers of plastic. The low-level nuclear waste is loaded into large concrete containers and then placed in the pit, which once full will then be covered by a 40-foot thick cap of concrete, clay, and finally a special cap to prevent prairie dogs from burrowing into the area.
All this allows the waste to be buried for thousands of years in a safe manner, and WCS benefits by being able to sell the space inside from anywhere from $1,000 up to $10,000 per cubic foot.
Low-level nuclear waste is a term that includes: contaminated tools, protective clothing, used-up filters for radioactive water, hospital and laboratory wastes, and also all debris (radioactive steel and concrete) from demolished nuclear power plants. Demand is expected to start to grow as more nuclear reactors around the country approach the end of their lives and demolition crews move in.
In 2013 alone, utilities around the country announced the retirement of five reactors; a decision partially forced by the low electricity prices that. The Vermont Yankee reactor is 41 years old and will soon close down, whereupon it will send thousands of tons of debris to the Texas site for safe disposal.
Environmentalists have mixed views over WCS. Scott A. Kovac, the operations and research director at Nuclear Watch New Mexico, who has been critical of the disposal operations at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said that he "was impressed with their (WCS's) low-level waste cell," and noted that it was "a generation above anything at Los Alamos."
However Tom Smith, an environment specialist at Public Citizen in Austin, noted his concern about the location of a local aquifer which had once been mapped to run under the site. A more recent map showed that the aquifer ended before the site began, but he calls into the credentials of this map, based on the fact that the chancellor for the Texas Tech University System was once a lobbyist for WCS.