Culberson County Supports Nuclear Waste Plan, Judge Says

June 19, 2015

Hudspeth County Herald

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Though he said he is not prepared either to "rubber stamp" the proposal or to "veto it immediately," Culberson County Judge Carlos Urias said Monday (June 15) that he believes a majority of elected officials and county residents support a plan to make the county the destination for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

Urias said that he thinks a majority of commissioners would vote to support the radioactive-waste proposal now – but that Culberson County officials remain in an "information-gathering" mode. He said he would likely bring the matter before commissioners in August.

"Being rural, we don’t have too many opportunities for new businesses," Urias said. "There are benefits in terms of jobs and tax revenues. When you mention ‘nuclear’, there are concerns – I understand that.

"It’s a controversial venture," he said, "but if the people of Culberson County support it, I will not hesitate to put it on the agenda and to support it."

Urias’ comments came after a June 11 public meeting in Van Horn – at which the most outspoken of the roughly 80 attendees opposed the nuclear-waste plan. But Urias said that about 50 of those 80 attendees – including most of those who spoke in opposition – were not Culberson County residents. And he said that opposition from non-county residents would not intimidate Culberson County officials or deter them from supporting the project.

"It’s a Culberson County decision," Urias said, "not a Hudspeth or Jeff Davis or Brewster or Reeves County decision."

Urias expressed frustration at news reports – specifically a piece by Midland’s NewsWest9 television – that claimed there was no local support for the proposal. He said those reports were based on comments from non-county residents. Urias said the station had not spoken with him or any of the other Culberson County elected officials, from the City of Van Horn or the school district, who were present at the June 11 meeting and support the project.

The construction in Culberson County of a long-term storage facility for high-level radioactive waste would be a major change in the West Texas landscape – and could pose risks to regional residents far beyond Culberson County. At the June 11 meeting, speakers cited the effects of a potential leak on the environment and human health – and on the possibility of the site being the target of a terrorist attack. Waste would be transported by truck or rail, creating additional risks in the region.

The facility could begin by storing spent fuel from nuclear power plants in Texas – in Somervell and Matagorda counties – but is ultimately planned as the destination for spent fuel from all of the nation’s 100-plus commercial reactors. The spent fuel is some of the most dangerous radioactive waste the country produces.

Waste companies have said that a West Texas facility could be an "interim" storage site for the spent fuel – though that interim could last as long as a century, and the dangers of the waste would continue far longer than that. Opponents note that safety standards can deteriorate over time. They cite the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, near Carlsbad, N.M. – the facility received high marks for safety after it opened, in the 1990s, but in 2014 was the site of multiple radioactive leaks.

Culberson County is the latest in a list of sites in West Texas and eastern New Mexico that have been proposed for the project. For years, a site in Nevada called Yucca Mountain was planned for the spent fuel. After sustained local opposition, the Yucca Mountain project was effectively abandoned in 2009, and the hunt for a new site began.

In Culberson County, an Austin-based company called Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, or AFCI-Texas, proposes to store spent nuclear fuel about 40 miles east of Van Horn – on land 9 miles north of Kent and Interstate 10. AFCI is reportedly negotiating for the purchase of "several thousand acres" of the Apache Ranch from the Dan A. Hughes Company. The Dan A. Hughes Company is a Beeville, Texas-based oil-and-gas company. The Apache Ranch property is just beyond the northern end of the Davis Mountains, and is about 10 miles from both the Jeff Davis and Reeves county lines.

At the June 11 meeting, held at the Karen D. Young Auditorium in Van Horn, AFCI principal Bill Jones described the company’s plan. Nuclear waste would be stored above-ground, in steel canisters encased in concrete. Jones showed diagrams of circles, 150 miles in radius, extending from potential storage sites – showing the area that could be affected in a catastrophic, "worst-case scenario" disaster at the site. Such a disaster would likely involve an attack or explosion, rather than a leak. The affected area would include most of Hudspeth County and much of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend area.

Dr. Sean McDeavitt, a Texas A&M nuclear engineer who said he is not in the employ of AFCI, also spoke at the meeting. He emphasized the security measures that would be in place in the transportation, storage and monitoring of the waste.

AFCI says the project would take six to eight years to complete, and it could be a decade or more before the site received radioactive waste.

AFCI says the project would involve a capital investment of $154 million, tax collections of $10 million a year and the "potential for significant future expansion and development." The company has said that construction of the facility would employ about 180 people, and that about 100 people would be employed to maintain the facility.

The Kent site is not the first West Texas property AFCI has considered for the project. In November 2011, Jones and Humble met with Hudspeth County officials, to discuss a plan to store the waste north of Fort Hancock. Hudspeth officials rejected the proposal.

AFCI also approached the community of Big Spring, in Howard County. And in March 2014, officials in Loving County announced that they had met with AFCI representatives and would welcome the project. The Loving County proposal appeared to have the support of state and federal officials. It is unclear how the project was derailed and why AFCI is now exploring a different site.

There are other proposals to store the high-level waste in the region. Waste Control Specialists operates a radioactive-waste facility in Andrews County, east of Midland, and has applied for a permit to take on the high-level spent fuel. And a coalition of officials in Eddy and Lea counties, in New Mexico, is seeking to bring the waste storage to their area. AFCI representatives have said that if Culberson County does not embrace the project, it could be exposed to the risks of nuclear-waste storage, without any of the benefits.

The approval of Culberson County officials is not a legal prerequisite for AFCI’s project in the county. But after the controversy over the Yucca Mountain plan, the U.S. Department of Energy is pursuing a "bottom-up" approach to finding a storage site for the waste. Federal officials hope to find a community that will invite or support the project. At present, most spent nuclear fuel is kept on-site at reactors – but the federal government has collected fees from nuclear plants for long-term storage, and the company that wins the contract stands to profit from that fund, which totals about $30 billion.

Urias said that the project is not guaranteed to come to Kent – even if county officials vote to support it. But he said that even with the competition, the AFCI principals "seem to be confident" about their odds. Jones served as general counsel to Gov. Rick Perry, and Perry later appointed him to the Texas A&M board of regents and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

"They seem to have a lot of clout," Urias said.

Dan Hughes, owner of the Apache Ranch, recently served as chairman of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, and he currently serves on the Texas A&M College of Geosciences Advisory Council; Hughes and AFCI’s Jones may have become familiar through their participation with the two institutions. Hughes also sits on the board of the Borderlands Research Institute, at Sul Ross State University.

Urias said that accepting the waste site would come with other benefits for Culberson County. Federal officials would be eager "to sweeten the deal" in any way they could, he said, and federal funding could be made available to construct a new school campus in Van Horn.

"If I wanted to, I could pass it now – but that’s not what I’m here for," Urias said. "We’re looking at the whole picture. It’s not like opening up a Walmart."

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