In April last year, Waste Control Specialists—a Dallas-based company focused on the disposal of radioactive waste—applied for the federal approval of a project that would bring high-level nuclear waste to its storage site on the outskirts of Andrews, Texas, along the New Mexico border. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted the application for review late last month, and the agency’s draft could be ready in a year. So high-level nuclear waste could arrive at the Andrews dump site as soon as 2021.
It’s an extremely divisive issue in the small West Texas town, which has a population of just under 13,000. At a public hearing held by the NRC in Andrews earlier this month, a few dozen people sparred over whether or not the town should allow potentially dangerous radioactive waste to be stored so close to their homes. Critics of the project held signs reading “We don’t want it!” over the red-and-yellow radioactive signal. Concerned parents brought their young kids—one child wore a sign around his neck that read, “I want to play in free-radiation zone.” Proponents of the plan, meanwhile, wore green buttons that said “We Support WCS.”
The dump in Andrews is no stranger to controversy. WCS faced legal threats from environmentalist groups when it first sought to store low-level nuclear waste in Andrews (low-level waste is mostly stuff that comes from medical equipment, like syringes and protective shoe covers, or laboratory animal carcasses, according to the NRC). The company’s plan was approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 2009, and the Andrews dump remains Texas’s only radioactive waste site. In 2014, the New York Times called the dump “America’s most valuable hole in the ground.”
But in a thirty-page legislative report draft completed in 2012, TCEQ staff expressed concerns about WCS’s ability to cover potential liabilities and decommissioning costs, only to see the final version stripped of most of the criticism brought up in the draft, according to the Texas Observer. And, also according to the Observer, some state geologists and engineers reportedly quit the state agency because their warnings that the facility would likely leak radioactive waste into nearby groundwater consistently fell on deaf ears (in a letter responding to the Observer‘s 2013 article, WCS’s then-CEO Bill Lindquist disputed that there was any potential for waste to leak into the groundwater, and said WCS provides “the safest environmental alternative for this type of waste available to Texas”).
This time around, the situation is slightly different. The high-level waste WCS wants to dump in Andrews is “highly radioactive and potentially harmful,” according to the NRC. High-level waste is basically spent reactor fuel, and the only way it can become harmless is through decay, which, according to the NRC, can take hundreds of thousands of years. Still, according to the Odessa American, the majority of the crowd at the public hearing was in favor of the plan. Andrews is an oil town, and while it struggled through the recent oil downturn, it managed to weather the storm better than others, in part because the presence of the WCS dump provided a diversification of employers that most towns the size of Andrews don’t have, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram.
Andrews seems hopeful that an economic infusion may be on the horizon. The town recently began construction on a new shopping center. “Any type of retail in Andrews is a plus for us, because being a rural community it’s a little bit of a struggle in order to bring anything into our community,” Interim Economic Development Director Hope Reese recently told KOSA. “I think because jobs are being created and people are coming back to work, and the oil prices have gone up it helps people to spend more money.” WCS Vice President Tom Jones told KOSA that the high-level nuclear waste project would allow the company to create up to fifty “high-paying” jobs at the Andrews facility.
“We don’t see it as some big, you know, dangerous, terrible, ominous figure,” Julia Wallace, executive director of the Andrews Chamber of Commerce, told NPR. “It’s just another day’s work… This is an industry and area that I think is going to continue to grow, and it’s a need that needs to be met. So I think we’re on to something here.”
It’s a familiar tradeoff: a company brings the promise of jobs and the hope of economic prosperity to a small town that rarely sees such opportunity—along with it, however, comes potential risk. “I don’t want the jobs,” Andrews resident Silvia Ramos said at the public hearing, according to KWES. “It’s a job that’s going to kill someone. Maybe not this year, maybe not next year. What about in five years? Or ten years later?” But according to the Odessa American, most of the critics at the public hearing came from out of town or were members of outside environmentalist groups.
Local opposition to the Andrews facility may ultimately be outmatched. WCS appears to have strong ties to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who publicly supported bringing nuclear waste to Texas when he was governor. One of Perry’s top political donors was Harold Simmons, who controlled WCS under the umbrella company Valhi. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Simmons contributed at least $1.4 million to Perry in the decade before his death in 2013 (a spokesman for Perry told the Statesman in January that Perry has no ties to WCS, and a WCS spokesperson recently denied any suggestion of “crony capitalism” to Energywire). As the Texas Observer notes, the Department of Energy would seem have a direct impact on the kind of high-level nuclear waste WCS seeks, since the agency oversees the dismantling of the nation’s nuclear arsenal and assists in the disposal of nuclear waste produced by power plants and the military.
The high-level waste project in Andrews has statewide implications. According to NPR, the WCS facility would have the capacity to take up to 80 percent of the waste currently being stored at shut-down reactors across the nation, drawing nuclear waste from as far away as Oregon and New York. That means high-level nuclear waste would need to be transported through (or at least nearby) more densely populated parts of Texas, something that may not sit well with the state’s metros. Earlier this week, Bexar County commissioners unanimously passed a resolution opposing the shipment of high-level nuclear waste passing through their county on its way to Andrews. “With our history of derailments and lack of infrastructure support, it’s not ready for prime time,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Tommy Calvert said, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s just too risky.”
It remains unclear how this whole thing will turn out. But with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review likely at least a year away, the debate in Andrews will almost certainly continue for the foreseeable future.