Waste Control Specialists


June 6, 2012

Komatsu equipment is integral to storage process

This spring, Waste Control Specialists (WCS) began accepting its first shipments of low-level radioactive waste at its landfill in western Texas’ Andrews County. It was a huge milestone in what has been a long process to license and construct the site, which consists of two large cells where the waste will be stored.

Dubbed “The Texas Solution,” it brings to fruition a long and complex process that began decades ago when Texas began searching for a long-term solution to storing low-level radiation generated through several sources. The waste materials come from university and research institutions, medical facilities where radiation is used to treat illnesses, and power-generation facilities, as well as from governmental entities such as the Department of Energy. Without a waste-disposal facility in the state, those places have had to store it on their own sites.

“This is obviously a better alterative,” stated Director of Operations Jay Britten. “It provides a safe and secure location. We have the solution in a dedicated facility. It’s also historic, in that this is the first facility engineered, constructed and licensed to dispose of low-level waste in the U.S. since the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act was passed by Congress in 1980.”

The site’s two cells cover about 25 acres, and each cell is dedicated to a particular type of waste. One, known as a compact landfill because it takes in materials under a compact agreement between Texas and Vermont, takes in the waste from commercial and institutional, nongovernmental sources from either state. The 2.3-millioncubic- foot cell will house materials from as many as 36 states, as permits are approved by the Texas Low-Level RWD Compact Commission. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regulates the landfill.

The second, larger cell, measuring more than 26 million cubic feet, accepts radioactive waste and equipment used in federal facilities, such as Cold-War lab remedial cleanups. That could include materials coming from decommissioning and demolition, for example, demolition debris, contaminated soils and heat exchangers — large items that can weigh as much as 500 to 600 tons.

“The main waste stream from federal operations is known as mixed waste,” said Douglas Frenette, Radwaste Operations Manager. “More often than not, it needs to be treated before it can be disposed. We have the ability to do that at an existing facility on site. The waste goes into an 80-yard mixing pan with materials, such as Portland cement, fly ash and ferrous sulfate, which immobilize the radioactive and chemical properties before they go into the landfill. We also have a shredder to reduce in size those large items. In some instances, that waste will go back out and be stored at another location, depending on what the provider wants. Our aim is to keep it here, so this becomes a ‘one-stop shop,’ and the material isn’t handled and hauled again.”

Safety a top priority

The search for a permanent disposal site has been ongoing for decades in Texas. Several options were sought, but all failed. Licensing for the Andrews County facility was approved in 2009, about five years after WCS applied.

“This is an ideal location for several reasons, one is that we have an abundance of quality, red-bed clay, which is less permeable than concrete,” said Britten, who noted that annual rainfall is very low. “That clay is also used as cover material as we fill the cells. In addition, we’re not near any aquifer, so groundwater contamination is essentially a nonfactor.”

Despite the site’s good physical properties, aggressive steps were taken during construction of the cells to ensure safety and minimize potential contamination. Both cells are more than 100 feet deep and were excavated deeply so that a three-foot layer of compacted clay could be put down. On top of that is a layer of granular cover and one foot of reinforced concrete with two feet of protective cover. In total, the liner at the bottom of the cells measures seven feet thick.

Depending on the incoming materials and their configuration, workers will place them in cylindrical or rectangular concrete canisters. Voids in the canisters will be filled with a flowable grout, and concrete lids will be placed on top. Backfilling between the canisters is done as needed to ensure long-term landfill stability.

“The process involves following specific procedures, in fact, we had to submit about 120 procedures to the TCEQ during the permitting process,” said Frenette. “Our waste acceptance criteria are very stringent, so anyone bringing in waste knows exactly how to do it. In general, we have at least a three-week notice before materials arrive. When a truck comes in, it must have a manifest, which we check over very carefully. We have visual and sample requirements. We also visit our vendors’ facilities to check their processes. It’s all part of safe disposal.”

In addition, there are processes in place for the safety of the 180-plus workers at “The Texas Solution.”

“Something we’re very proud of is the number of jobs this facility has created,” said Frenette. “The people of Andrews County have shown us great support, so we’re very happy that we can provide numerous high-paying jobs. With our procedures in place, it’s a safe and secure place to work.”

A need for reliable Komatsu equipment

In addition to the permanent jobs created by the landfill, construction of the site brought several temporary construction projects. Among them was excavation of the cells, which involved moving more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt that stayed on site for future cover.

“Because the clay material is so good in this area, we stockpiled it, and we also have a good amount of sand that we can mine and use as backfill around the canisters,” said Britten, noting that an outside contractor handled cell construction using Komatsu equipment. “As a radioactive waste site, the equipment used to move that material has to be reliable. We were already using a PC200 excavator in our treatment operation, which was here prior to the landfill approval, as well as a D155 dozer we’ve used in numerous applications. They’ve always fit our needs for production and reliability, so adding Komatsu equipment seemed logical.”

Working with Kirby-Smith Machinery, including Territory Manager Kevin Demel and Amarillo Branch Manager Chuck Thompson, WCS added three HD785-7 haul trucks, two PC450LC-8 excavators, two D51 dozers and support equipment, including an NPK processor for the PC200, generators and pumps.

“As materials come in, we need to move large quantities of cover materials efficiently, and we believe the PC450 and 100-ton HD785 combination is the most effective,” maintained Britten. “We really like the D51 dozers in our compact cell because their size allows us to get between the canisters, which can be tight. They have excellent visibility all around, and our operators really appreciate that. The PC200 works in our federal waste cell, using a shear to cut up bulk materials.”

Britten noted that productivity and reliability weren’t the only reasons WCS chose Komatsu equipment. “The price was right, so we believe we’re getting the best bang for the buck. Equally as important to us is peace of mind in having a dealer that supports its equipment. After meeting with Kirby-Smith, we got that. They’ve gone above and beyond for us, including educating their service personnel on how to work on equipment at a radiological waste site. Kirby-Smith has become a very good partner for us.”

An economic leader

When WCS held its ribbon-cutting ceremony, Kirby-Smith staff members were on hand, along with national, state and Andrews County dignitaries. “We’re very proud of what this facility brings to the local economy,” remarked Britten. “The people of Andrews County really educated themselves and realized that the level of safety measures we take makes this a very low-risk venture. They understood the misconceptions and overcame them.”

Frenette noted that the facility already has years in operation without a lost-time accident, and he expects that to remain the case for a long time to come.

“We’re currently licensed for 15 years, with the option to renew,” said Frenette, discussing the possibility for additional cell construction. “We expect to remain here at least 30 years. As we cover and bring the cells back up to original grade, the ultimate goal is a site that many years into the future, no one will be able to tell there was ever a landfill here.”