BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Federal officials are considering approving a plan to truck 200,000 gallons of low-level radioactive waste water from a closed eastern U.S. nuclear power plant to Idaho.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this week said an environmental assessment found no significant impact to the environment in storing the radioactive waste about 40 miles south of Boise.
The contaminated water is from Entergy Nuclear Operations' Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vermont, which ceased operating in 2014.
The wastewater would be trucked to US Ecology Idaho's site near Grand View in southwest Idaho. The NRC said the plan requires an exemption because US Ecology Idaho doesn't have a license from the federal agency to store radioactive waste.
"Safety and protecting the environment are US Ecology's top priorities and we are confident acceptance of this waste poses no threat to the environment or surrounding community," the company said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press. The company said the radiation level of the wastewater is slightly above radiation background levels in Idaho.
The NRC said the wastewater will be solidified with clay before being stored as a soil-like waste. The agency also said low annual rainfall of just over 7 inches (17.78 centimeters) combined with natural and engineered features will "limit the release of any stored radioactive material into the environment." The engineered features include liners, a cover and a monitoring system.
Brian Monson, hazardous waste program manager for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the state approved the plan because of the NRC exemption and that accepting the waste meets the requirements of a permit issued by Idaho.
"They have accepted such shipments in the past, and their permit allows them to take it," Monson said. "US Ecology is a very good facility. It has a good compliance history."
The company renewed its 10-year hazardous waste permit with Idaho in 2016.
The company in 2012, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement database, agreed to pay a $184,400 fine after the EPA said the company failed to submit timely toxic chemical release reports at its Grand View site.
The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station still had about two decades left on its license to operate, said Joe Lynch, government affairs manager for Entergy. But he said the facility couldn't produce electricity at a competitive price because of the cost of safety upgrades and the low price of natural gas.
The Idaho location is a backup plan for the radioactive wastewater, he said. Wastewater includes groundwater that seeped into the facility and water used for cooling spent fuel when the nuclear plant produced energy.
The company has sent about 500,000 gallons to a facility in Tennessee and plans to continue using that facility, Lynch said.
"In the event something happens — not that we foresee that — we want a backup if we have to ship elsewhere," he said. "In our business, you always look for a couple different methods."
The timeline to remove the contaminated water — about 890,000 gallons remain — isn't clear, he said. The company has decades to dismantle the facility, Lynch said, but could start as early as 2019 if a deal is reached with a specialty contractor.
Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said it's uncertain when the agency will make a decision about trucking the water to Idaho. But he said the finding of no significant environmental impact with the plan is significant.
"That generally means the staff is fairly close to wrapping up," he said.