By Jim Malewitz

Texas’ only radioactive waste site has permission to dramatically expand its capacity, take in new types of waste and reduce its financial liability should its owner suddenly close up shop.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Wednesday voted unanimously to amend a license held by Waste Control Specialists, which operates one of the few low-level radioactive waste disposal sites in the United States. The commission also denied State Rep. Lon Burnam's request for a contested-case hearing on the issue.

The change allows the company to dispose of 9 million cubic feet of radioactive material. That is more than three times the 2.39 million cubic feet the license currently allows. The ammendment would also let company dispose of depleted uranium – material commonly used in manufacturing federal weapons and armor. Also under the amendment, and if a separate commission proposal also goes through, the company could dispose of “Greater Than Class C Waste,” the most highly radioactive materials classified as “low-level” radioactive waste.

The amendment would also slash more than $50 million from the $136 million in “financial assurance” that the company is paying the state – the mix of cash and securities that would cover costs should the company see an accident or suddenly abandon the waste.

The commissioners' vote came after hearing comments from Burnam's office and environmental groups who opposed the amendment. Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said allowing the company to expand while lowering its liability "really does seem to fly in the face of rational decision-making."

The commissioners said they needed to reduce Waste Control Specialists' liability because the company's current site is smaller than what was planned years ago, making it cheaper to clean up any accidents. The commission says it will recalculate the bond whenever the company expands.

“This does not represent a weakening of the financial assurances," said Brian Shaw, the commission's chairman. "It’s a truing up of what’s actually built.”

The commissioners only discussed the financial liability issue. They did not allow comments on the site's expansion.

Waste Control Specialists applauded the vote.

“This amendment gives the state of Texas an additional guarantee that there will be more than enough capacity to handle the decommissioning needs of Texas nuclear power plants whenever that takes place," Chuck McDonald, a spokesman said in a statement. “This amendment will also provide the U.S. Department of Energy with a much-needed option as it looks for safe, secure disposal of orphaned waste that it has been storing for up to 40 or 50 years.”