Nuke dumps and repositories

The spokesman at the Department of Energy came to loath me.

One of my first beats as a Texas Capitol reporter in 1983 was to cover the debate surrounding DOE plans to bury high-level nuclear waste in a salt dome in Deaf Smith County. The DOE referred to it as a high level nuclear waste repository, but in asking questions about the latest twist or turn, I’d always call it “the dump.” The spokesman without fail, and often with an exasperated tone, would correct me, “It’s not a dump. It’s a scientifically designed facility that can safely serve as a repository for spent nuclear reactor rods.” But would it hold the waste safely for thousands of years? Even with that considered, the folks in Hereford saw economic opportunity.

“If we can put a man on the moon, I’m sure we could bury this radioactive waste safely,” says Wes Fisher, mayor of Hereford, the Deaf Smith County seat. “What bothers folks most is that it’s in the hands of the feds.”

Keep in mind, these were the days when everyone believed nuclear power was the devil’s tool. Nukes would result in the end of time for human civilization. The movie The China Syndrome had opened in 1979 just twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor went wild and almost melted down. That was before Chernobyl or Fukushima captured global attention.

The Texas project was put on hold, in part because of widespread environmentalist opposition. If there was not place to store the spent fuel rods, then the expansion of nuclear power would be slowed. Environmentalists also helped block a low-level waste facility in Sierra Blanca, but once private enterprise took over with wheels greased by campaign contributions, the way was paved for a low level facility in Andrews County despite opposition from environmentalists.

Now, in the era of global warming, nuclear power is not looking so evil. And environmentalists are increasingly divided on the hazards of nuclear power against the growing concerns over global warming.

However, it appears that a fossil fuel is standing in the way: Hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it produces has driven the cost of electricity production so low that nuclear expansion is on hold through most of the country. An expansion of the Comanche Peak nuclear facility in North Texas was suspended last year. Plans for the South Texas Project also have been hitting a bumpy road.

But here it is three decades after I sparred with that DOE spokesman over the words dump versus repository and the nation still has neither. And Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus are interested once again in putting Texas on the table as the national dumping ground for those spent fuel rods.

“The citizens of Texas — and every other state currently storing radioactive waste — have been betrayed by their federal government,” Perry wrote in a letter reported on in today’s Austin American-Statesman.

Because the expansion of nuclear power is on hold in Texas, the state’s need for a high-level dump is hardly greater today than a year ago. At present, most spent fuel is stored in water-filled pools at reactor sites — 75,000 tons of spent fuel. The Fukushima disaster shows just how dangerous these storage pools are.

But does Texas really want to become the storage facility for the nation? How safe is the transportation of high-level waste to the facility? Is there a danger to the state’s underground water supplies? And ultimately, what is motivating the state’s leaders: need or greed?

Yucca Mountain in Nevada beat out the Deaf Smith site that I covered years ago. The Yucca Mountain dump has not been built now may never be built.

Nuclear power is an energy source that produces waste that is dangerous for 250,000 years. Think about it, that is all of human history from the time of the death of Jesus to now — multiplied by about 125 times. Scientists believe the first homo sapiens walked the land about 250,000 years ago. That’s a lot of time for our trash to be dangerous to us. All the same, nuclear power at the moment may be the answer to buying humanity another 250,000 years as a hedge against global warming.

To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, perhaps it is time to stop worrying and love the nuclear waste. In the words of General “Buck” Turgidson, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe