How do you get people to vote for radioactive waste to be dumped in Texas in close proximity to the Ogallala and Dockum aquifers? And how do you also get the same community to agree to bankroll the project's $75 million buildout costs? You sell it as a prosperity issue.
The promise of future prosperity is more hopeful than discussing point-blank realities. Namely, that the source of prosperity is a dumpsite in west Texas, near the border of New Mexico, that has the potential for receiving varying grades of radioactive waste from 36 states. And the geographical area in question has three inherent properties that have scientists, engineers and activists worried: red clay, aquifers and high winds.
On May 9, voters from Andrews County went to the booth to participate in a bond election, paid for by Waste Control Specialists (WCS), to decide whether or not their county will pay for such a dumpsite. 642 people voted affirmative and 639 against.
A discrepancy of three votes has decided a crucial decision that could have far-ranging affects on all present and future residents of Texas and beyond. According to business interests involved in the project, financing through normal channels would require a two to three year wait in the current economic downturn. With Andrews County paying for the initial costs, construction is planned to begin this summer.
The preliminary funding hurdle has been cleared, but central to receiving radioactive waste is a license granted by state regulators. Earlier this year, WCS received their license from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). It allows them to accept waste from Texas and Vermont as well as from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Waste accepted from the DOE may originate from anywhere in the country.
Proper licensing coupled with immediate financing is a boon for WCS. If they proceed as planned, they will capitalize on South Carolina's decision in July to shutter its low-level radioactive waste operations. The Texas site stands to profit by absorbing the radioactive waste from the 36 states that South Carolina will no longer be servicing.
And the recent move by the Obama administration to put a hold on the Yucca Mountain repository may leave the door open for the proposed Texas dumpsite to become an alternative location for nuclear reactor waste that had been previously destined for Nevada.
While WCS is licensed to accept Class A, B, and C waste (A is the least hazardous), they currently cannot accept waste outside the compact with Vermont. That would require the approval of eight compact commissioners, six from Texas and two from Vermont.
This arrangement, however, is rife with conflicts of interest. The commissioners in Texas are appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. WCS is owned by Valhi. Valhi is owned by Harold Simmons, a major Republican party and Perry donor.
This issue and corollary ones will not be going away any time soon as Texas has its own dependency on such sites. In addition to being home to two commercial nuclear reactors, eight additional entities are currently seeking licenses to build reactors in Texas.
WCS has been licensed to operate Andrews County's radioactive waste dumpsite for 15 years. In that length of time, varying grades of radioactive refuse could make its way underground in Texas, releasing radionuclides into the Ogallala and Dockum aquifers. The voters of Andrews County have spoken but theirs should not be the final voice on this issue.