April 05, 2020

U.S. Senate must approve compact

Now that they are back in Washington, Maine’s two U.S. senators will try again to secure a place for Maine’s low-level nuclear waste.

Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both Republicans, will urge Congress to approve a plan to send the waste to Texas, even as Maine’s major generator, the Maine Yankee nuclear plant, says the site could be too expensive.

Democratic Reps. John Baldacci and Tom Allen of Maine have already helped steer the compact through the House, where it passed with some opposition from environmentally sensitive lawmakers.

The state’s political leaders nevertheless continue to support the Texas dump and say they hope Congress can approve the disposal agreement in March.

“This is a good insurance policy that will ensure Maine taxpayers, for a modest investment, that low-level radioactive waste won’t be stored in Maine,” said David Lackey, a spokesman for Snowe, who is leading efforts in the Senate to pass the disposal compact.

Maine Yankee, once a key supporter of shipping low-level nuclear waste to Texas, now says it isn’t so sure. The plant’s owners, now decommissioning and dismantling the reactor, say Maine’s ratepayers would pay too much to use the Texas site and that it won’t open soon enough to accept the plant’s waste.

In September, Maine Yankee urged Congress to delay ratification of the compact until its terms could be renegotiated to accommodate the early retirement of the nuclear plant. At the time, Maine Yankee said the Texas site would have added $40 million in unnecessary decommissioning costs estimated at more than $500 million.

Maine Yankee is instead considering a disposal site in Barnwell, S.C., which has accepted the plant’s low-level nuclear waste for years.

But new evidence suggests the Texas site could turn out to be a better deal for ratepayers. The cost of sending Maine’s low-level waste to Texas is projected to be $43.9 million, compared with $62.6 million to use the South Carolina site, according to a Dec. 19 memorandum to Gov. Angus King from the State Planning Office.

“We think it would be absolutely foolish for the state of Maine, much less Vermont and Texas, to throw away an option which, one, generates competition with Barnwell, two, is an inexpensive option compared to prices elsewhere and, three, has been a consistent policy objective for this state over the last eight years,” said Maine’s public advocate, Stephen Ward, who represents ratepayer interests in utility matters.

With states responsible for disposing of low-level radioactive waste, Maine and Vermont have spent years forming a disposal compact with Texas. Legislatures in all three states have adopted the compact. The U.S. House approved the compact last fall and sent it to the Senate.

Maine Yankee appears to have softened its opposition to the Texas site, even as it still says the South Carolina site remains a better option. The plant’s spokeswoman, Maureen Brown, said Maine Yankee would continue evaluating the two sites up until the vote in the Senate.

“It makes no sense to establish an inflexible position when, in fact, the conditions in the industry are changing,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, some Texans continue to fight the tri-state compact. Bill Addington, whose home town of Sierra Blanca would be host of the site, says he has been lobbying the Senate against what he considers a campaign of misinformation about the waste and the site itself.

Members of the House and Senate have been told that most of waste is relatively innocuous medical waste, he said, and that Sierra Blanca actually wants the dump. In fact, the vast majority of the waste comes from nuclear power plants in Maine and Vermont. And Sierra Blanca is clearly divided over accepting it.

“If Mainers don’t approve of waste being shipped over 2,500 miles to our home, they should get on the phone right away to Olympia Snowe to get her to back off this bill,” Addington said.

Addington and other opponents of the dump, and there are many in Texas, are getting support from an unlikely quarter in the Senate. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., took to the Senate floor late last year to say Maine and Vermont want to use an impoverished Mexican-American community as their “nuclear trash can.”

“Poor and minority communities, unable to protect themselves in the political arena, find that the old plumber’s maxim is as true as ever: waste flows downhill, both figuratively and literally,” Wellstone said. “If you are at the bottom of the socio-economic slope, the pollution lands on you.”

Aides to U.S. senators in Vermont and Maine say Senate rules have allowed Wellstone to delay progress on getting the waste compact approved. Snowe’s office has been working to ease Wellstone’s concerns, Senate aides said.

One reason Texas wants waste from two small New England states is that the compact would allow Texas to exclude waste from other states. Indeed, the ability to block waste from other states is a selling point for the dump in Texas.

But a commission appointed to run the Texas site would in fact have the authority to accept waste from other states. Even as he opposes the compact outright, Addington says at the very least the Senate should amend the legislation to make it clear that no waste can come to Texas from states other than Maine and Vermont.

Otherwise, he said, Sierra Blanca could become a national dumping ground. Said Addington: “Maine and Vermont are just the Trojan horse.”

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