Sun, Aug 04, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Texas oil town wants US’ nuclear waste

While some residents of the town of Andrews are determined to stop the plans no matter what, an estimated 80 percent say that the jobs and other financial benefits make the plans worthwhile

By Ari Natter and Will Wade  /  Bloomberg

Protesters hold signs outside the Midland County Courthouse in Texas during a US Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing on July 10.

Photo: Bloomberg

As Blake Roberts bounced along a single-lane dirt road in his red Ford Super Duty pickup, he pointed to a pumpjack bobbing in the west Texas heat.

“Everything we do revolves around oil,” Roberts said as he neared his home outside the town of Andrews in the heart of the booming Permian Basin oil field.

However, Roberts, 29, has his eye on what he hopes will be the next big thing for the area: nuclear waste. As president of the local chamber of commerce, knows that oil booms are inevitably followed by busts.

He is supporting a plan to establish a repository in the desert about 50km outside of town for as much as 40,000 tonnes of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and waste from power plants.

If approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the project could bring jobs and revenue to the area, and help break a political logjam that has stranded tonnes of the waste at 72 power plants and other sites across the US.

“We need to have income from something other than oil money,” Roberts said.

Local support for the project is strong, said County Judge Charlie Falcon, who presides over the four-member Andrews County Commissioners’ Court, which functions as the county’s board of commissioners.

The panel approved a resolution in 2015 backing the idea to accept high-level nuclear waste at the designated site and is likely to reiterate its support with a letter in the near future, Falcon said during an interview in his chambers in the brick courthouse on Main Street.

“We’ve been primarily oil-based here since 1929 and we live and die by oil prices,” said Falcon, 53, a lifelong Andrews resident. “My interest is in diversifying so we can have other sources of revenue come to our community. So we have have other sources of living.”

The plan by Interim Storage Partners LLC, a joint venture between Orano CIS LLC and Waste Control Specialists LLC, calls for waste to be shipped by rail from across the nation. Then it would be sealed in giant concrete casks and stored above ground for as long as 100 years, or at least until a permanent repository is built.

Opponents say that could be never.

There is reason for skepticism: The US Congress in 1987 designated a ridge in the Nevada Desert about 150km north of Las Vegas called Yucca Mountain to be the nation’s repository, but decades of political opposition led by former US Senate majority leader Harry Reid kept the project from moving forward.

In 2010, then-US president Barack Obama scrapped the plan, although US President Donald Trump has taken steps to revive it.

In the meantime, the US has no permanent place of its own to store radioactive material that will remain deadly for several thousand years.

Andrews is not the only place seeking nuclear waste. Just across a state border, a similar project in eastern New Mexico is also awaiting approval from the nuclear commission.

While New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has been vocal about her opposition to Holtec International Corp’s proposed storage site, local officials in Lea and Eddy counties have voiced support for a facility that they expect to bring jobs and revenue to the region.

Not everyone in Andrews is onboard with the idea of storing waste that can remain radioactive for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years.

“We don’t need to put it right in the middle of the biggest oil field in the world,” said Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd of Midland, Texas, which is part of a coalition of oil and gas producers and landowners opposed to the nuclear dump.

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