Hudspeth County officials were approached this week about the possible storage of massive quantities of high-level nuclear waste at a site near Fort Hancock. If the project were to move forward, the Hudspeth County location would become the repository for some 70,000 tons of radioactive waste, including the spent fuel from all of the nation’s nuclear power plants and byproducts from the production of nuclear-weapons material.
County Judge Becky Dean-Walker said she was contacted last week by Bill Jones, owner of an Austin-based law firm called The Jones Firm and co-owner of AFCI Texas, LLC, the company pursuing the radioactive-waste project. She said Jones indicated a desire to meet with her and other county officials, to gauge their interest in and receptivity to a nuclear-waste-storage endeavor here. On Tuesday, November 8, Jones and a partner traveled to Sierra Blanca and met separately, and privately, with Dean-Walker and several county commissioners.
Dean-Walker said Jones’ company was considering a site suggested by the Texas General Land Office a few miles north of Interstate 10, just opposite the interstate from Fort Hancock.
Dean-Walker said that Jones and his associate said they did not want to pursue their project in an area that opposed it; Dean-Walker told the men that Hudspeth County was unlikely to be the welcoming place they were seeking, she said.
"They said, ‘We’re not looking for a fight, and we don’t want to go someplace where people don’t want us,’" she said, "and I told them people probably don’t want them. I told them they would find opposition here, and they said they’d go back to their partners and report what they’d found."
Jones has spoken with both of Texas’ U.S. senators, as well as a number of the state’s Congressional representatives, Dean-Walker said, but had wanted to speak with her and county commissioners before proceeding further with the project. There has been no public announcement associated with the proposal.
Jones is a prominent Texas lawyer who has been engaged at high levels in state government. Jones served as general counsel to Gov. Rick Perry from December 2000 to late 2003; he was subsequently appointed by the governor to the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents and, in September of this year, to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Dean-Walker discussed the project during commissioners court Tuesday, and it was clear the proposal touched live nerves for county officials – as news of it likely will for many county residents. The intense and divisive battle that raged in the 1980s and early '90s over a proposed radioactive-waste-disposal site here is still fresh in many minds. Jones and his associate said they were aware of that history and wanted to launch a discussion of their proposal on a different, and more open, footing.
In that earlier debate, a company called Waste Control Specialists proposed to dispose of what it described as low-level nuclear waste in Hudspeth County; locations near Dell City, Fort Hancock and Sierra Blanca were all proposed for the project. Some area residents viewed the proposal as a potential boon for the local economy, while others expressed deep concerns about the possible impact of radioactive waste on human health and on natural resources, especially groundwater. That idea for a waste dump in Hudspeth County was ultimately scrapped, and WCS has since moved forward with its project in Andrews County, northwest of Midland.
The current proposal would in many ways be more significant than WCS’ project, and it fits into a debate that has engaged national attention for decades – a debate on where to store or dump high-level radioactive waste and the spent fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants.
The most recent chapter of the debate has focused on a place in Nevada called Yucca Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. In 2002, Congress approved the depositing of the high-level waste deep in Yucca Mountain, but local and national opposition to the project persisted, and the Obama Administration effectively killed the project in 2009. Radioactivity associated with the waste would persist for hundreds of thousands of years, and there were concerns that the geology at Yucca Mountain made the site inappropriate for the waste. Residents of Las Vegas were also concerned about radioactive waste being regularly transported through their city, and similar concerns are likely to arise in El Paso if the Hudspeth County project were to proceed.
The United States has been struggling with how and where to store or dispose of spent nuclear fuel since 1957, when the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the waste be deposited in rock deep underground. Now that the Yucca Mountain site is no longer under consideration, numerous locations are being floated as potential repositories for the radioactive waste – and Hudspeth County is now on the list of those potential destinations.
With no place in the country for spent fuel to be disposed of, the materials presently are stored on-site at nuclear power plants across the country.
Jones said the Hudspeth County project would not involve burying waste underground. Rather, he said, his company’s project would store the waste in heavily reinforced casks above ground, on concrete pads. Many nations that rely on nuclear power reprocess their spent fuel for reuse, and Jones said he believes the United States will move in that direction soon. A Hudspeth County project, then, would store the waste above ground, rather than burying it in the earth, and the storage location could in the future become the site of a plant for reprocessing the waste into usable nuclear fuel, Jones aid.
The 70,000 tons of waste being discussed is enough to cover a football field, from end zone to end zone, 30 feet high, Jones said. A nuclear-waste facility at the Fort Hancock site would encompass about 1,000 acres of land.
Jones said his company was considering the Hudspeth County site rather than, for example, a site in Andrews County, which is said to be actively pursuing the high-level waste deal, at the suggestion of GLO officials. The GLO manages state land to generate revenue for public education in Texas; the agency has significant holdings in Hudspeth County, as it does elsewhere in the Trans-Pecos and West Texas, but none in Andrews County.
One issue that came up in earlier discussions about radioactive-waste disposal here is the fact that Southern Hudspeth County lies on an active seismic fault, which regularly generates earthquake activity. Jones said the aboveground storage system would not be compromised by such seismic activity.
Another matter that remains unclear is the impact of the La Paz Agreement, which was also invoked by opponents of WCS’ proposal. The treaty, signed by the United States and Mexico in 1983, is directed at improving environmental conditions along the border and forbids the construction of certain facilities within 40 miles of the border.
In addition to whatever jobs a waste-storage or reprocessing operation might create locally, Hudspeth County would also receive "impact money" from the federal government if it were to accept the waste. Dean-Walker said the payment struck her wrong.
"If it’s so safe," she said, "why buy us off?"
Dean-Walker said she viewed the project and the GLO’s encouragement of Hudspeth County as the site for nuclear-waste storage as part of an ongoing pattern, in which business interests and state officials seek to take advantage of Hudspeth County’s relative political weakness, low-income level and sparse population.
"They want to send these things to ‘a rural and isolated area,’" she said, "but to us it’s not isolated. To us, it’s home – we’re all people, and we’re here."
It’s unclear how AFCI’s proposal might proceed from here, but Dean-Walker said that Jones had told her that if his company was to continue investigating a Hudspeth County project "the next thing they would do is talk to the public."