A Texas county sees opportunity in toxic waste



MENTONE, Texas — Loving County is big, dry and stretches for miles, and is the perfect place, local officials say, to store high-level radioactive waste.

Officials here hope to entice the federal government — with $28 billion to spend on the disposal of high-level radioactive waste — into considering the possibility.

“With the money that this would generate for the county, we might even be able to pay the taxpayers back,” said the county judge, Skeet Jones. “We could build some roads. We could bring in some more water. We could have a town that’s incorporated, have a city council, maybe even start a school.” Loving County had a school, but it has been boarded up for years, and students are bused to neighboring Winkler County.

“Maybe even have a Wal-Mart,” Jones mused.

About midway between El Paso and Midland-Odessa, Loving County, population 95, according to the Census Bureau, is spread across 650 square miles, about twice the size of New York City. The population could grow 40 times larger and still meet the government definition of “highly rural.” Mentone, the county seat, has a courthouse, a single gas station, a food truck and not much else.

“There are no lawyers, no bank, no hospital, no real estate agency, nothing,” said Mozelle Carr, the county clerk. Carr is Jones’ sister. There are not even enough people for a fully independent local government.

The family, which makes up about a quarter of the voters in the county, is not unanimous in its support of a storage site. Their father, Elgin R. Jones, who goes by Punk and was sheriff from 1965 to 1992, said he foresaw trouble in anything radioactive. But he admits to being in the minority; even his wife, Mary Belle Jones, the mother of Carr and Skeet Jones, is wavering. While any decision is in the hands of the county commission, with so few residents, the opinion of the public — and the family — is crucial.

The cancellation of the federal government’s plan to bury high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada means that the waste will remain at about 70 reactor sites around the country until there is some other plan. Loving County has visions of storing spent fuel from closed reactors in aboveground casks, and later, building a processing plant that would recover unused uranium, and plutonium for reuse, making the rest easier to bury. County officials are working with a company that is hoping to negotiate a deal with the state and federal governments. Two counties just across the state line in New Mexico are also seeking to become storage sites.

Any plan would probably require federal legislation, because the nuclear waste fund is supposed to be used for disposal, not storage. But Congress has an incentive; the Treasury is facing billions of dollars in damage claims because of the Energy Department’s delay.

Storing spent fuel in a central location, in preparation for burial or for reprocessing, looks more attractive as defunct reactors from Maine to California are torn down, and as reactor owners sue the Energy Department, which was supposed to begin accepting the waste for burial in 1998, to recover their costs. The department now says it might be ready to bury waste by 2048, 50 years late, but experts have little confidence in that. And the volume of “orphaned” waste has grown by about 50 percent recently.

“Interim” storage, though, would mean adding a cumbersome job: shipping the fuel a second time, for burial. Or maybe not. “If we let this waste into Texas, it’s likely never to be shipped anywhere else, because nobody really wants it,” said Tom Smith, an energy advocate at Public Citizen in Austin.

Renting out a patch of desert for a storage site has been considered elsewhere. A storage site consists of a thick concrete pad covered with steel and concrete casks, and surrounded by bright lights and razor wire, looking a little like a basketball court at a maximum-security prison. Some Midwestern utilities struck a deal with the Skull Valley band of the Goshute Indian tribe at their reservation 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed the spot, but the state of Utah blocked waste from being shipped there. The Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico also negotiated for a deal, but then backed away.

In Loving’s case, two lawyers in Austin, Monty G. Humble and Bill Jones, raised the idea with Gov. Rick Perry, who Humble said was “not opposed,” and then went shopping for a county that would be interested. They argued that two counties in New Mexico, Eddy and Lea, were another possibility, and that if the waste were taken there that the New Mexico counties would get all the benefit but Loving would get some of the risk.

The lawyers told the commissioners and other county officials, “If it isn’t here, it will be in New Mexico,” said Domino Banwart, the country treasurer. The lawyers told the group, “Either way, y’all are getting it,” she said.

Humble, who specializes in energy topics, and Bill Jones, who was Perry’s first general counsel, formed a company, Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiatives, and have been negotiating with a landowner in the county. The county has designated the two as its agents in Austin, and the two are seeking the same designation from the state of Texas in order to negotiate with the Department of Energy over terms of a lease, including research grants to Texas universities, new roads and emergency equipment for towns in the area.

Perry has ordered a state study of the storage idea. “I believe it is time for Texas to act,” he wrote in a letter in March, partly because New Mexico was considering a site within 50 miles of the Texas border. The speaker of the Texas House had also ordered a committee to study the matter.

A preliminary plan under discussion in Austin would give the state and the locality a slice of the revenues that would come to a storage site or a reprocessing plant.

Across the border in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez has taken a wait-and-see approach to plans by Eddy and Lea counties to serve as hosts for the waste.

Humble said he believed he had solved the problem of assuring that the waste in Loving County was moved into permanent storage in 20 or 30 years. Rent would be raised sharply after a certain date, he said, and if the federal government still did not remove the waste, Texas would reserve the right to bury it within the state. His choice would be Deaf Smith County, southwest of Amarillo, which the Department of Energy was considering until Congress picked Yucca Mountain.

A storage site would need about 400 acres — about half the size of Central Park — plus a buffer zone. Reprocessing, if it ever came, would require about 3,000 acres, or 5 square miles. That would fit easily between the county’s few paved roads.

No one knows how long the storage casks will last. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is performing a “waste confidence” study seeking an answer. But waste is usually transferred from sealed cask to sealed cask only deep under water, to shield humans from any radiation. And over time more waste will be stored in places where there is no longer a pool to do that work. If the waste had to be repackaged before burial, storage experts said that building a pool in one spot would be easier.

While some Texas officials oppose the idea of a high-level storage site, some also see it as inevitable. “It’s going to be Texas,” said Lon Burnam, a state representative from the Dallas area. “Everyone else is too smart to take it.” Burnam fought hard against the low-level waste burial site, which is in Andrews, but was unsuccessful.

In Loving, Raymond Wildman, the cashier at Hopper Station, a gas station and convenience store that is also the county’s only retail outlet, offered another reason that could make a West Texas site attractive. Given the low population, he said, “We wouldn’t be missed if something happened.”

First Published August 6, 2014 8:00 PM

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