LUBBOCK, Texas — Texas officials in the nation's least populous county want to store used nuclear fuel from the state's four reactors — and possibly from other states — in a business venture they believe could bring jobs and billions of dollars to the region.
Loving County Judge Skeet Lee Jones said he's met with elected officials at the local, state and federal level and all are supportive of the effort to build a site that would store spent nuclear fuel rods in Far West Texas.
"When we first mentioned it there was a little hypertension," Jones said of the county commissioners' reaction when the subject was broached about a year ago. "After we learned how it'd be taken care of, the benefit of having one is much greater than the risk that's involved."
The topic could be part of the 2015 legislative session after House Speaker Joe Straus instructed lawmakers to study the issue. Straus asked for specific recommendations on state and federal action needed to permit a disposal or interim storage site in Texas.
If built, the site in Loving County, population 84, would be the second radioactive waste operation in that part of Texas. Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists operates a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Andrews County, about 80 miles from Loving County's lone town of Mentone. Dallas is the nearest big city in Texas, 430 miles to the northeast.
There is currently no disposal site in the United States for spent rods from the more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors across the country — including Texas' four reactors at Comanche Peak in Glen Rose and the South Texas Project near Bay City. Nevada's conflict-ridden Yucca Mountain site doesn't appear viable at this point, so spent fuel is currently stored next to the reactors in pools or in dry casks.
To construct an interim storage site in Loving County, tall, triple-lined steel and concrete casts would be vertically set atop a 3-foot-deep concrete slab or stored horizontally in a vault.
A presidential commission has recommended the U.S. look for an alternative to Yucca Mountain. The panel recommended looking for communities interested in hosting a nuclear waste facility, noting that attempts to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities have failed spectacularly.
Other West Texas counties have been approached about the idea but none has been as enthusiast as Loving County.
There is strong interest too in southeastern New Mexico. Carlsbad and Hobbs, and Eddy and Lea counties have formed the Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance LLC. Its board has been working on bringing an interim storage site to the area for a couple of years.
New Mexico is already home to the nation's only underground nuclear waste dump. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which primarily handles low-level radioactive waste from the manufacturing of Cold War-era nuclear weapons, recently made news after two separate incidents forced its closure weeks ago, including a leak that exposed more than a dozen workers to low levels of radiation.
Texas environmentalists oppose an interim storage site Texas.
"I think it's a pretty stupid idea," said Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen. "Every other state that's looked at this has rejected it because it's just too dangerous."
State Rep. Poncho Navarez, who represents Loving County and 11 other counties, said getting support from those living near the site is paramount.
"The region needs to be behind it," said Navarez, who added he would be willing to author legislation if stakeholders in the area agree. "The fear doesn't stop at the county line."
One developer, Austin-based Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, is working to help find a home for Texas' 2,400 tons of spent fuel. Co-owner Monty Humble said he's spoken with officials in several West Texas counties, including Andrews County.
The company wants to work to get a place ready for construction and then turn it over to an operator with expertise in nuclear storage, Humble said.
Years ago, Andrews County officials gave overwhelming support to Waste Control but they haven't yet decided if they are interested in a high-level operation. Company spokesman Chuck McDonald said "it's in the realm of possibility" that Waste Control would be interested.
Loving County last fall passed a resolution to explore the project further. Jones said the county's sparse population makes it ideal. A storage site for Texas and possibly other states could bring in millions of dollars. If a recycling plant for used nuclear fuel is added it could bring in billions, he said.
There are no estimates on the number of jobs that would come from building and operating a storage site.
Some in Loving County are adamantly opposed, including Skeet Lee Jones' father, Elgin Jones. He spent time in the military in Japan after atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he said.
"If they put (a storage site) in Loving County I know there's going to be some accidents," said the 86-year-old former Loving County sheriff. "It's just a matter of time. That stuff is dangerous."