This is a tale of two cities. Or counties … or prefectures.
One of those places, Loving County, Texas, somewhere between El Paso and Odessa, is practically a ghost town, with about 95 people scattered across an area twice the size of New York City.
There’s not a lot going on in Loving, and not a lot of money to make a lot go on. But all that could change if the area starts taking the country’s high-level radioactive waste — and the $28 billion that comes along with it.
The other of those places is also pretty much a ghost town, with a mere handful of stubborn residents scattered across a region that once was home to over 200,000.
That place, too, could see a big influx of cash if it agreed to accept radioactive waste, but don’t expect to see many inhabitants, old or new, stream back to follow the money.
There likely won’t be a Walmart — or any other non-nuclear-related industry — coming anytime soon to that other area. It already has plenty of roads. And schools, for that matter. And water — they have so much of that they are trying to get permission to pump it out to sea.
Folks in Loving County seem eager to capture their share of what they see as government largess. But many near that other town have a different name for their government’s offer of money in exchange for taking mountains of toxic dirt and debris: bribery.
On Monday, Yuhei Sato, the mayor of that other area, agreed to take the bribe.
“I have made an agonizing decision to accept plans to construct temporary storage facilities in order to achieve recovery in the environment as soon as possible,” said Sato.
In exchange for his agony, Fukushima Prefecture will receive 300 billion yen (about $2.9 billion) — and an amount of high- and low-level radioactive waste that almost defies estimation.
In an attempt to bring radiation levels down in some of the areas surrounding Fukushima, the Japanese government has set about removing debris and a layer of topsoil, storing it in large plastic bags at dozens of temporary sites throughout the region. (In a disturbing move, some debris has also been sent out of the area for incinerationIndeed, many scientists and health experts have suggested that the only plausible plan for Fukushima is to close it to permanent human habitation for the next 50 to 100 years, but an official declaration of such a plan would open the Japanese government and TEPCO, Fukushima Daiichi’s nominal operator, to more lawsuits and greater claims for compensation. The latest estimates of the cost of the disaster have topped 11 trillion yen ($105 billion), but projections have been consistently low since the start of the crisis (today’s number is double the late-2011 estimate).
And, of course, a new “temporary” facility at Fukushima doesn’t address the now three-and-a-half-year-old everyday problems that the nuclear plant and the region already face.
All of which should give the citizens of Loving pause — $28 billion and a new Walmart not withstanding.
The tale of American nuclear waste storage is long and sordid. The U.S. didn’t even have a national policy on the storage of the high-level radioactive waste generated by the nation’s fleet of nuclear reactors until 1982, and even then, the policy was to study ways to store it and start a long search for a place to permanently site a waste repository.
Twenty-eight billion dollars might seem like a lot now, but ask the people near some of the nation’s other nuclear sites (like the perennially troubled Hanford, Washington, facility) or the people of Fukushima, whose prefecture got only a tenth of what Loving is promised, what price — be it the best of times or the worst of times — you can put on forever.