On November 10, 2011, a hundred or so residents of Andrews, Texas, gathered at a large hole in the ground to celebrate the grand opening of America’s newest nuclear waste dump.
Assembled amongst the locals were political and business luminaries from Dallas, Austin, and Washington D.C.. For the ribbon cutting, hedge trimmer-sized scissors were passed out to the various men in suits responsible for making Andrews County a repository for the nation’s radioactive trash. Among them were the senior managers of Waste Control Specialists (WCS), the company that owns the site, Harold Simmons, the conservative Dallas billionaire who owned that company; and Bob Zap, the mayor of Andrews at the time.
The inauguration of the low-level radioactive waste facility, Texas’ first, ended with a barbecue.
Most communities would not find the prospect of housing nuclear refuse cause for celebration. And yet, two years earlier, the town had narrowly voted to fund the construction of the disposal site with a $75-million bond.
Despite the enduring opposition from a handful of locals and the state Sierra club, most of Andrews’ 15,000 residents were eager to celebrate their accomplishment. And it was an accomplishment.
A Brief History of How Not To Dispose of Nuclear Waste
Though the term “nuclear waste” conjures up images of undifferentiated, glow-in-the-dark goo, it refers to a wide variety of irradiated refuse. But, in broad strokes, civilian nuclear waste comes in two basic flavors: high-level and low-level.
High-level is largely made up of spent fuel rods, pulled hot and dangerous from cooling pools in nuclear power plants across the country. This is the stuff that generates the power at nuclear power plants and, once removed, it will remain radioactive, for all intents and purpose, forever. The federal government intends to one day bury these rods deep in the ground somewhere. More on that plan later.
Low-level waste, on the other hand, is pretty much everything else that’s too radioactive to pass along to your neighborhood garbage collector. This includes the metal filters, wires, gauges, tools, and residues from nuclear power plants; the gloves, booties, and goggles worn by plant technicians; the syringes, swabs, and medical equipment from PET scans and oncology wards; and the fluids, vials, and animal carcasses from laboratory experiments.
This hodgepodge low-level waste can be further divided into classes that roughly correspond to the threat they pose to public health. The radioactivity of Class A waste fades to safe levels within one hundred years. Class C garbage can remain dangerous for half a millennium.
A Civil War Over Nuclear Waste
One could hardly blame South Carolina.
A state’s reluctance to host a nuclear waste depository is more than your run-of-the-mill NIMBY-ism. One of the nation’s founding principles, reflected in the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, is that the country is a free-trade area. Nevada cannot place tariffs on Colorado shoes to protect its own cobbler industry. In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that what is true of shoes must be true of nuclear waste. As soon as a state opens up a radioactive waste landfill within its borders, it risks becoming a nuclear dumping ground for the entire country.
But in response to the country’s main radioactive waste site shutting its doors, Congress provided states with a workaround. Under a new law passed in the final days of 1980, states could place some restrictions on nuclear waste delivery as long as they joined regional waste management “compacts.”
Under the new system, if Illinois and Kentucky agreed upon a shared disposal site, they could form a compact, thus reserving the facility solely for nuclear waste generated between the two states. States outside of the compact system would be forced to deal with their own waste.
The compact system was seen as a way to facilitate mutually beneficial arrangements amongst the states. Instead, it just relocated the same old argument over where to locate landfills. As one hazardous waste treatment expert characterized the situation, “what we have is a Lebanon of hazardous waste in which everybody is fighting everybody else.”
Radioactive Waste as Economic Development
Even in the rarefied world of radioactive disposal facilities, the Andrews site occupies an unusual niche.
Today, there are four low-level waste landfills operating around the country. Two, in South Carolina and in Washington, can only accept waste from their respective compacts. A third, in Utah, which began operating in the early 1990s, only accepts Class A refuse.
That makes the Andrews facility the only landfill that can receive all classes of low-level radioactive waste from any state in the continental United States.
In the meantime, nuclear power plants have been left holding the radioactive bag.
Absent a long-term solution, these plants are storing their own spent fuel. This means that virtually every nuclear power plant in the country is currently serving as a de facto nuclear waste storage facility.
“If you look at a map of nuclear power plants, basically each of those is also a nuclear waste repository,” says Barry Rabe. “Most of them are in metropolitan areas.”
Eastern New Mexico is no stranger to nuclear waste. To the south of Hobbs, the British nuclear fuel company, Urenco, runs a uranium enrichment facility. To the west, International Isotopes Inc. is hoping to establish a factory for depleted uranium processing. On the drive from Hobbs to Carlsbad, you pass the turnoff to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Read more at The Towns That Say “Yes in my Backyard!” to Nuclear Waste