July 1, 2015

Texas Weighs Waste

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Travis Bubenik

Nuclear waste is not popular in any neighborhood. In West Texas, there’s a battle underway over a plan to create a above ground storage facility for high level waste. Its a bigger problem than West Texas – the nation’s nuclear power plants are quickly running out of room to store the waste.

This region has had a long and often contentious relationship with nuclear waste, stretching back to a years-long battle over a planned permanent waste site in the 1980’s and 90’s.

Opponents eventually won that fight, but a different site was later built in the Permian Basin.

Some now see West Texas as the ideal place to store higher-level waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants, since those plants are running out of room to do it themselves.

Ranchers don’t like the idea, and they’re already gearing up for a fight.

Bill Jones

Travis Bubenik / KRTS

Bill Jones, Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner and co-owner of AFCI, Texas, speaking in Van Horn about his plan for a high-level nuclear waste storage site.

Bill Jones is a Texas Parks and Wildlife Commissioner. He’s also co-owner of the Austin-based waste company AFCI, Texas. In that role, he wants to bring used nuclear fuel from those power plants to an above-ground storage site in rural Culberson County.

But he’s been trying to do that for seven years. Even with supporters as powerful as former governor Rick Perry backing the idea of bringing nuclear waste to Texas, it has been a hard sell.

Four other West Texas counties have already told him, “no thanks.”

“It’s fair to say that we did not bring along the landowners with the process, as we have with this county,” Jones said at a recent community meeting in Van Horn.

There, he pitched the idea to locals and people from neighboring counties. He was grilled on the safety of it.

Later, he said it’s not like that Simpons-esque image people have of a nuclear site.

“Most have a Hollywood view of a green, goopy, highly-toxic material stored in 55-gallon drums with a skull and crossbones drawn on the drums,” he said, noting that won’t be the case with this project.

The waste would be stored in heavy-duty steel cylinders, the way it’s already stored at many of the plants that produce it.

“We are doing something that we are currently doing in this country very safely,” he said. “We’re just going to do it better, and in a remote location.”

The federal government has been looking for a community willing to take some of this waste from the power plants, while also seeking a permanent place to store it.

There are billions of dollars in a Nuclear Waste Fund to pave the way.

If the people here go with his plan, Jones said, some of that money – possibly millions – could wind up in Texas and here in Culberson County.

“If they satisfy themselves with the safety of it,” he said, “then I think it simply makes sense to explore the economic opportunities that come with it.”

His selling point to West Texans: If you don’t get in on this, New Mexico will.

Nearby counties there are looking at a similar plan, as is the low-level waste site that already exists in Texas.

That pitch hasn’t convinced people in the past, but this time could be different. Jones now has a powerful ally.

Remember that landowner Jones mentioned he’s got a better relationship with this time around?

That’s his fellow commissioner and Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission Chairman Dan Allen Hughes, Jr. His family owns the land where this site would be built.

That hasn’t convinced everyone.

“I just don’t really see how nuclear waste and Texas Parks and Wildlife go together, but I don’t know,” said Lucy Furlong, a cattle rancher in Culberson and Jeff Davis Counties. Her family’s owned the Long X Ranch since the late 1800’s.

Cattle ranchers Clay and Lucy Furlong say they were “horrified” to learn of a planned nuclear storage site that would be built just a few miles north of their Long X Ranch.

Travis Bubenik / KRTS / Marfa Public Radio

Cattle ranchers Clay and Lucy Furlong say they were “horrified” to learn of a planned nuclear storage site that would be built just a few miles north of their Long X Ranch.

Old, grainy pictures of the ranch line the rustic walls of the main house.

She and her husband Clay say they didn’t know anything about nuclear waste until they found out just weeks ago that a site could be built a few miles up the road.

All they knew was how they felt about it – “horrified.”

Other nearby ranchers aren’t happy either.

“We’ve gotten together as landowners just talking,” Furlong says. “No one wants it.”

But at home, they’re thinking of what life might be like with that waste sitting nearby, possibly for a long time.

“They say it’s a storing facility, it seems like it’s gonna be for a very long time, 80 to 100 years, which we’ll all be dead then, who knows,” she said. “There’s caverns underground, water, we’re concerned about water, and the lights and the land value.”

Driving out to the proposed site, Clay Furlong points out an old railroad route Jones has talked about using to ship the waste in, but there aren’t any tracks on the ground. Just a dirt path, a sign that this plan’s still in its very early stages.

“There is a bit of a question mark here,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists who focused on the future of nuclear power.

He says, the fact is, any project like this is going to be entering uncharted territory. It’s just never been done before.

“There’s always going to be uncertainty around the potential safety of the site,” he explained. “A lot of the analysis is based on paper studies and computer models, and there’s very little real-world testing of the integrity of spent fuel waste casks.”

This first-of-its kind project would have to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before getting started – a process that could take years. And the beyond that – the government still has to figure out who exactly is going to oversee the future of nuclear waste storage management.

A bill currently in the Senate would create a Nuclear Waste Administration under the Executive Branch to tackle that job.

  • vlady47

    This issue also involves shipping this high level nuclear waste through towns and cities.
    Think exploding chemical and gas trains are bad…try Mobile Chernobyl.

  • Vivienne Perkins

    Edwin Lyman says “there’s a bit of a question here”??? That’s the understatement of the century. There’s a giant question here: namely why people in a remote area of Texas should take this highly dangerous material into their state. I’ve followed this rad/waste issue for my entire adult life: there’s no place to put it and there never will be anyplace to put material that is harmful to life for 200,000 years. The NRC knows this, and has always known it. The plan now is to bribe communities to build storage facilities above ground and private companies are being created to persuade citizens that they have a plan to take care of material that will never stop posing a hazard to all life. There is not a storage cask in the world that will last for the necessary time-span, and no private company is going to figure out a solution to a problem the feds have been seeking to solve for 65 years without success. Try to get this basic fact: WE HAVE TO STOP CREATING RADIOACTIVE WASTE because there’s no place we can put it. Our clever engineers say “it’s just an engineering problem.” Tell that to the dumb bunnies that buildtFukushima-daiichi right on the shoreline of Japan where it could be taken out by a tsunami and create a situation where radioactive water can pour into the Pacific for the rest of all our lifespans. Tell that to the idiot that said it would be a great idea to pack the barrels at the WIPP site with organic kitty litter, so that millions of taxpayer dollars will not have to be invested in a cleanup. Keep in mind that every nuclear reactor in the nation is manned by ordinary high school graduates who don’t know zilch about nuclear physics and don’t care. W hy is that? Because these corporations are in business to make money and they don’t want to destroy their profit margins by hiring individuals with real expertise.

  • Marushka France

    Nuclear waste is hazardous toxin – poison. No wonder no one wants it. Nuclear has been foisted upon the pubic without informed consent. Sister Dr. Rosalie Bertell brought up the moral issue of informed consent – Nuremberg trials – and compared that to a lack of informed consent on all things nuclear.
    Proven decades ago that nuclear — radioisotopes – are poison.
    Nuclear program – military-industry-congressional complex – as Eisenhower stated in his farewell address. Government subsidies, government ‘insurance’ — taxpayers — but private profits, by very few. A few apparently want to profit in Texas as well.

    “… there is no amount of radiation so small that it has no ill effects at all on anybody.There is actually no such thing as a minimum permissible dose. Perhaps we are talking about only a very small number of individual tragedies – the number of atomic age children with cancer, the new victims of leukemia, the damage to skin tissues here and reproductive systems there – perhaps these are too small to measure with statistics. But they nevertheless loom very large indeed in human and moral terms.

    Radiation, in its simplest terms – figuratively, literally and chemically – is poison. Nuclear explosions in the atmosphere are slowly but progressively poisoning our air, our earth, our water and our food. And it falls, let us remember, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, on all peoples of all lands, regardless of their political ideology, their way of life, their religion or the color of their skin. Beneath this bombardment of radiation which man has created, all men are indeed equal.”

    ~~~~~~~ John F. Kennedy (US President, Jan ’61 – Nov ’63) 1960


  • Amber Rivera

    Hi everyone, Amber Rivera here from Inside Energy. Thank you for contributing your experiences and concerns. If you have any questions on the reporting of this particular story you can contact Travis at travis@marfapublicradio.org. And if you’ve got a question about nuclear energy or waste that you want us to investigate as a team, just ask us! Go to http://ask.insideenergy.org.