Loving County Judge Discusses Nuclear Waste Proposal

March 27, 2014

Hudspeth County Herald

In an interview with the Herald last Wednesday, March 19, Loving County Judge Skeet Lee Jones talked about his county’s bid to become the final resting place for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel – and about how the project might move forward in the years to come.

Jones said Loving County officials began to consider the waste proposal when they were approached by representatives of AFCI Texas, an Austin-based company that is seeking to develop a long-term storage facility for high-level waste from the nation’s 100-plus commercial nuclear reactors.

The same AFCI representatives contacted Hudspeth County officials in November 2011; at that time, the company was considering a piece of state land near Fort Hancock for the project, a parcel the company had identified based on recommendations from the Texas General Land Office. Hudspeth County officials told the AFCI representatives, who included the company’s co-founder, Austin attorney Bill Jones, that residents here were unlikely to welcome the project.

AFCI’s pitch found a more receptive audience in Loving County.

Jones said that part of what had motivate his commissioners court to embrace the plan was the perception that high-level nuclear-waste storage was likely to come to the area, regardless of whether Loving County signed on or not. Loving County is situated at the edge of the existing "nuclear alley" that includes the Waste Isolation Pilot Project east of Carlsbad, N.M., the National Enrichment Facility at Eunice, N.M. and Waste Control Specialists’ low-level radioactive-waste site at Andrews, Texas. The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, formed of officials from those two New Mexico counties, is actively lobbying for the high-level, spent-fuel facility for New Mexico, must opposite the state line from Loving County.

"What got our attention was that there was a spot picked just across the state line, within rock-throwing distance of our county," Jones said. "Instead of just sharing the risk, we thought we should try to get a return monetarily for the county."

AFCI envisions storing the used nuclear rods – a total of about 70,000 tons of waste material – in heavily reinforced casks aboveground, on concrete pads that would be spread over about 1,000 acres. Jones said county officials are considering a site in the northern part of Loving County, near the state line, as a possible location for the facility. Jones said that portion of the county has been less impacted than other areas by the ongoing boom in oil-and-gas activity.

Before going public with their interest in the project, Jones said he and other county officials had spoken with some Loving County residents about the proposal. He said there was "not a lot of opposition," though he acknowledged that, "whenever you say ‘nuclear,’ it’s like saying ‘rattlesnake’ – people get scared."

After visiting with local residents, the county judge said that he and Bill Jones and another AFCI representative had traveled to Austin, to meet with Texas General Land Office officials, Gov. Rick Perry and others, and to Washington, D.C., where they met with Texas’ two U.S. senators and with Congressional representatives for the region. Jones said that all the officials with whom they spoke welcomed the proposal.

"There was no opposition from anybody," County Judge Jones said. "In fact, there was quite a bit of support from most of the people we talked to."

The United States has been struggling with where to store spent nuclear fuel since the late 1950s. For years, a site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was planned as a waste site. Local opposition to the project intensified – and the Yucca Mountain plan was effectively scrapped in 2009.

The U.S. Department of Energy will ultimately determine the site for the high-level waste, which, in the absent of a storage facility, is currently being held on site an nuclear power plants across the country. Besides Texas and New Mexico, other states – including Nevada, Mississippi and Idaho – are in the hunt for the facility.

Joe Straus, the speaker of the Texas House, has instructed the legislature to produce recommendations on state and federal action that would be needed to bring a waste-disposal or interim storage site for the spent nuclear rods to Texas. It is unclear whether waste from Texas’ four reactors could begin traveling to a site in Loving County or elsewhere before federal officials settle on a site.

If Loving County were selected be federal officials, it would likely be more than a decade before spent nuclear fuel would begin traveling from reactors in other parts of the country to West Texas. Public hearings and a permitting process would precede the construction of a storage site, and Jones said groundbreaking on a facility was not likely to occur any sooner than 2024.

In the wake of the dispute over the Yucca Mountain, federal officials indicated that local consent would be a prerequisite for a new location. A Loving County project would probably require support not only from within Loving County but from elsewhere in the region to move forward.

Jones said there are several factors that make Loving County – and the region more generally – an attractive place for high-level radioactive-waste storage. Low rainfall is one of those factors, Jones said; if there were a leak from the site, the region’s aridity would reduce likelihood of water sources becoming contaminated. Loving County is bounded on the west by the Pecos River, and Jones said that, while the river’s proximity could be an issue of concern, the locations under consideration drain to the east, rather than towards the river.

Jones said that the spent fuel would have to be brought in by rail, and rail lines are another factor that situate Loving County well for the project. Also, the region’s sparse population is an asset for Loving County’s bid; Loving County is the least populous county in the nation – the 2010 Census recorded 82 residents – though the ongoing oil-and-gas boom has brought many temporary residents to the county in recent years.

Radioactive-waste storage elsewhere in the region has been a boon for local economies, and Jones said an interim-storage facility for the waste would create a "few hundred jobs" in Loving County. The county could also receive millions in payment from AFCI. The big economic development, however, would come if the spent fuel were to be recycled for subsequent use, Jones said.

Japan, France and other countries that rely heavily on nuclear power process and recycle spent fuel; though the recycling technology was developed in the United States, Jones said, recycling is not currently permitted here. AFCI believes that, at some point, that will change, and spent U.S. fuel could be recycled at the Loving County facility. That is part of the reason the company plans to store the waste in aboveground casks.

"The big money is in processing and recycling the spent fuel," Jones said. "Recycling would involve thousands of jobs, effecting counties across the region – you’d have people who would be driving out of Hobbs and Odessa-Midland to work here."

Whether or not the waste were recycled, Jones said the idea that a facility in Loving County or elsewhere would be an "interim storage facility," as state and federal officials sometimes suggest, was unrealistic. The weight of the material alone, he said, would mean that once it had been transported to a location, it would not be likely to be taken elsewhere.

Jones said that he believes that while the benefits of a high-level waste site outweigh the risks, it is inevitable that there will be an accident of some kind at such a facility. He said the county would need to aggressively prepare for such an event.

"Anyone that says there won’t ever be an accident – that would be a blatant lie," he said. "There’s inevitably going to be an accident – you have to be prepared. That’s the way it is with anything."

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