Nuclear waste facility being considered in Culberson County


A very important discussion is beginning in Van Horn about
radioactive waste disposal. On Tuesday, two representatives from AFCI Texas,
LLC met with city and county officials and some local residents to gauge
interest in a proposed storage site for dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel.
The group will return on June 11 at 6 p.m. to answer questions and continue the
conversation in a meeting to be held at the Karen D. Young Auditorium.

It is important to note that New Mexico has been actively
seeking this type of project and that there is a site chosen and set aside for
it on the border of Lee and Eddy counties between Hobbs and Carlsbad. It seems
that residents, local officials and those at the state level in New Mexico are
all on board. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will choose
that location or another.

Bill Jones and Monty Humble of AFCI would like to see Texas
reap the benefits of this huge federally funded effort and have been working to
that end for several years. They suggest that if the site in New Mexico is
chosen, West Texas is included in the area considered “at risk” without
benefitting from the financial perks of having a large influx of federal funds
that will support such an endeavor.

The first question that springs to mind is “Just what are
those risks?” Mr. Jones and Mr. Humble
spent a time answering these concerns, aided by graphics and brochures. To
answer the question, first Mr. Jones explained briefly the process of using
nuclear energy for fuel. Small
radioactive pellets about the diameter of a pencil are loaded into tubes.

Those tubes are bundled together and placed in the nuclear
reactor, where they create the steam that turns the turbines and generates
energy to power our cities. These rods, made up of those small pellets, last
about two years before they lose efficiency and must be replaced.

According to the officials at Tuesday’s meeting, the dilemma
that our country is now facing is that we must find a safe and cost effective
way to store the spent fuel. Right now they are being stored on site at nuclear
plants all around our country. There are
different methods to accomplish this in use now.

First, when the spent fuel rods are removed from the reactor
they are placed in cooling pools where they remain for at least one year and
often much longer. These cooling ponds are not meant to be long-term storage,
but because there is no solution for long term storage, in many plants they
remain in the pools. Mr. Jones and Mr. Humble explained that all over the
country plants are running out of room in their cooling pools.

They also explained that there are federal mandates in place
for dealing with this spent fuel and the government has been collecting money
from the plants in order to do so. The government has not fulfilled that duty
and is now losing money to lawsuits and fines and as a result is very motivated
to create a long term solution.

It should also be stated that the project being proposed is
for long-term storage, not disposal. The incident at the waste isolation pilot
program near Carlsbad comes to mind for local residents and AFCI officials said
that the dry cask storage system is a completely different method of dealing
with such high level waste.

The Carlsbad site was intended to be a disposal facility,
where waste would remain from that point on. Dry cask storage offers stable
long term storage of high level waste while also offering the potential for
this material to be recycled and reused as technology to do so develops.

Dry cask storage of high level nuclear waste involves a
meticulous process that begins in the cooling ponds at the nuclear plant
facilities. The rods are placed inside steal containers while still in the pools.
The containers are welded or bolted shut and then the water is removed and
replaced with an inert gas such as helium.

The container is then placed within a concrete container and
then inside another steel reinforced
concrete container. These casks are set up with internal and external
monitoring systems so that if there is any threat of breach, the rods can be
removed and placed into a new container. That process is done by submerging the
entire cask back into a cooling pool and beginning from square one with a new,
intact container.

There is a site that AFCI is interested in proposing within
Culberson County about nine miles north of Kent and about four miles Northeast
of FM 2424. This site is not close to
any of our county’s water sources, nor any potable aquifers. The project would
involve purchase of a few thousand acres to include the 350-acre facility and a
buffer zone of the remaining acreage.

This land would then be returned to the state of Texas and
leased to the facility. The county would benefit financially in many ways. There
would be development of our local infrastructure, payments to the county in
lieu of taxes which could result in reduced property taxes for residents as
well as improvements for our schools, our fire department and other city and
county services.

There are pros and cons to this concept and citizens and
officials of the county will be asking many questions of Mr. Jones and Mr.
Humble and the experts they’ve promised to bring to town. Those in attendance
at last Tuesday’s meeting were assured that every safety precaution is taken
and that dry cask storage of spent nuclear fuel is the safest possible way to
contain and deal with this substance. They
claimed that the containers could withstand the impact of an airplane crash and
that they have survived earthquake and tsunami forces without losing structural

The big concerns with these containers is corrosion. Some
tiny flaw in the container from within or without could become larger over
time. For this reason, they are all monitored closely. Indeed, a little
research into the history of dry cask storage reveals that there were some
issues caused by improper welds of the interior containers in the 1990s.

Questions about the standards for safety and quality
assurance with these containers will need to be asked. Also covered was how
they would be transported. There are strict regulations about travel by rail. A
train consisting of an engine, two cars carrying the dry casks and three buffer
cars would travel alone on a cleared line of track.

There are many more questions to be considered, yet the
undeniable truth is that despite the likely initial reaction to having such a
potentially dangerous substance in our backyard, it does exist in less safe
storage sites all over our nation.
Ultimately, we must consider the safest and best way to deal with a
problem that has been all too easy for most of us to ignore until now.


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