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Nuclear Waste May Find A Home In Andrews County — Which Thrills And Horrifies Locals

Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Protesters in Midland inflate a mock spent nuclear fuel cask to show the size of the containers that may be brought by train or to Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews County.

Early last year, a Texas-based company revived its efforts to temporarily store spent nuclear fuel from the country's power plants in Andrews County. The potential storage location happens to be right in the middle of the nation's busiest oilfield — the Permian Basin.

This has an oil company, some local residents and environmental groups worried. But others, however, are hopeful that the efforts to store the waste might be a boon to the local economy.

The potential high-level nuclear waste storage site is a stone's throw from the Texas-New Mexico state line in Andrews County — a nearly eighty-mile drive from Midland, the region's bustling corporate center. On the Texas side, a giant facility sits on a piece of land, stretching across 15,000 acres. At the entrance of the compound is a large blue sign with white lettering that reads "WCS — Waste Control Specialists."

It’s quiet here except for the drone of cicadas, the faint howls of coyotes in the distance, along with passing traffic.

Waste Control Specialists already manages low-level radioactive waste hereand disposes of it in the county. They handle things like syringes and gloves that have been exposed to radiation in labs and hospitals.

Now, the Dallas-based company is trying once again to expand its operations to temporarily hold tons of spent nuclear fuel by applying for a license with the U.S. government.

After putting its initial application on hold with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission a few years ago because of "financial concerns," WCS restarted its efforts to store high-level nuclear waste by forming a subsidiary. WCS partnered with Orano USA, a company that specializes in nuclear power, to create Interim Storage Partners. This subsidiary would officially manage the nuclear waste, temporarily, in a storage site added on to WCS's Andrews County facility.

Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Waste Control Specialists owns 15,000 acre on the Texas-New Mexico border where it currently stores low-level radioactive waste and where high-level nuclear waste will be stored if approved by the government.

In this case though, “temporary” could mean up to a hundred years or more of holding some of the most radioactive substances in the country — something Charlie Falcon, the County Judge for Andrews, is hoping WCS can make happen.

It's clear when you walk into Falcon's office that he's in favor of the project. On his wall, there's an aerial photo of the site where the spent nuclear fuel would be housed. He's weathered the ups and downs that come with the oil industry and believes storing the radioactive material could be a much-needed boost to the county of roughly 18,000 residents. “Living through the booms and busts of oil here in Andrews County...it’s hard.”

A projection from 2015 shows storing high-level nuclear waste in Andrews could generate an estimated $10 million annually.

Right now, Andrews County and the state of Texas receive 5% of the gross revenue from all radioactive disposal activity in Andrews County. If WCS's application for high-level waste is approved, a similar deal is expected, according to Falcon. Right now, WCS has already given the region millions of dollars over the years. That money has gone towards new ambulances, a pool and a food pantry. Falcon believes Andrews needs to find new ways to generate revenue as its populaiton rapidly expands with the region's current oil boom.

“The entire West Texas region is growing," Falcon said. "We’ve experienced our growth here in Andrews and so [now we're asking] 'how do we fund this?'"

In his opinion, storing high-level nuclear waste is one of the ways his county can to do that. But for others like Tommy Taylor, storing 40,000 tons of the countries spent nuclear fuel isn’t the answer.

Taylor is the head of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch.

"These entities have come up and said, 'Well this Permian Basin will be the perfect place to store this stuff." Taylor said. "We just think that is a wrong-headed idea.”

The Permian Basin produces around a third of America's oil and is set to increase its output in the coming years. Taylor is worried that radiation leaks from high-level nuclear waste could shut down the area's oil productio and cost companies like his millions of dollars. He's also concerned that the "temporary" storage facility might become permanent.

Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Officials in Andrews hope WCS storing spent nuclear fuel will help diversify the area's economy.

Since the early 1980s, the United States has been working on building a permanent geological storage facility for spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada. However, after decades and billions of dollars, the project was halted by the Obama administration. And before that, the government had missed its deadline to take control of nuclear waste in the 90s, which stranded tons of spent nuclear waste at reactor sites across 35 states.

"If that is all gathered up and sited here what is going to be the emphasis for us to ever move it again," Taylor questioned.

The Trump Administration has talked about restarting construction on the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository, but it would cost billions of dollars to revive the project. In general, it's agreed that the country is nowhere near building a permanent storage facility for spent nuclear fuel, said Rod Ewing, a professor at Stanford University who researches nuclear waste.

Ewing believes communities need to be wary of companies trying to start "short-term" nuclear waste storage.

“It’s easy to say this is interim storage, but what are the guarantees to the community," Ewing asked.

A WCS spokesperson declined to comment on the possibility that the waste could be left at the Andrews County WCS site indefinitely.

Across the country, there aren't any other “temporary” or “interim” nuclear waste storage sites. Right now, there's only one other company working toward building interim storage, and it would be located approximately 40 miles away from WCS's site in West Texas.

But the demand for temporary sites exists. Storing spent nuclear fuel is costly for private nuclear power companies and taxpayers. The Department of Energy was supposed to begin taking ownership of the nation's spent nuclear fuel and store it in the late 90s but failed to do that. Several companies then sued the government to recoup storage costs. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the United States has paid around $6 billion to companies and it is projected that it will pay out around $24 billion in the future for storing the radioactive waste.

If the DOE ends up taking control of the 80,000 tonsof spent nuclear fuel and stores the waste at interim facilities — like the one proposed by Waste Control Specialists — that could reduce the money the government is projected to pay nuclear power companies. For this to happen, Congress would need to change the current laws dictating nuclear waste policy.

Mitch Borden
Marfa Public Radio
Elizabeth Padilla is a life-long Andrews resident. She doesn't believe her home should become the nation's dump for nuclear waste. (Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio)

Right now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing WCS’s application to store high-level nuclear waste.

David Mclntyre is with the NRC, which is charged with preserving public health and safety when it comes to nuclear power. McIntyre said the process to get approval to store high-level nuclear waste is a long one and WCS has a ways to go.

"We are going to scrutinize them and make sure that if they decide to go forward they can do it safely," McIntyre said.

But there are some like Elizabeth Padilla, who are firmly opposed to the idea, no matter how thorough the approval process turns out to be.

"We did not produce [the nuclear waste]. We did not benefit from it. My children, future generations do not deserve to live with this in their backyard."

Padilla is a local Spanish teacher who was born and raised in Andrews. She said she’s heard all the arguments in favor of the high-level nuclear waste facility and how safe it will be. For example, precautions like the nearly indestructible casks the spent waste would be stored in, or how unlikely it would be for the waste to leak. None of that matters to Padilla — nuclear waste is just a gamble she’s unwilling to take.

"There’s just no way I would risk my children or any of my family members living there," Padilla said. "We do not deserve to be the nation's dump."

Recently, the NRC rejected all but one petition against WCS’s proposed nuclear waste interim storage facility, the claim made by the Lonestar Chapter of the Sierra Club. The government agreed the review will most likely not halt the licensing application, but opponents to the nuclear waste site are now weighing their options and are considering taking their fight to court. However, WCS remains confident they’ll get approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to move forward.

The NRC estimates it'll complete the licensing process for the Andrews site in about two years and WCS estimates that its high-level nuclear waste facility will open by 2022.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.