BY LUPA JERNIGAN
Bill Jones and Monty Humble of AFCI Texas, LLC returned to Van Horn last Thursday evening to bring the subject of their proposed nuclear waste facility to city and countyresidents. Initially the two had met with city and county officials and members of the press to determine whether there was enough interest to proceed with bringing thistopic before the constituents of the area.
Associate Professor of Nuclear Engineering Sean M. McDeavitt of Texas A&M University joined them to explain the science behind this storage facility. Nuclear plants produce power by harnessing the energy contained in nuclear fuel bundles made up of small pellets loaded into rods and then bundled together. The fuel cells heat water which creates steam. The steam turns the turbines that generate electricity used to power our cities.
After a time, typically around two years, these fuel bundles become less efficient and must be replaced. At this point they are still very powerful and must be handled with extreme care. Upon removal from use in the plant they are placed in cooling pools onsite where they are kept from three to five years.
There are various methods for dealing with this waste after that time has passed. One is dry cask storage. Dry cask storage involves placing the spent fuel bundles in steel containers, removing the liquid and replacing it with an inert gas such as helium.
Mr. Jones, and Professor McDeavitt spent their time explaining this process and answering questions about the safety of dry cask storage. They argue that dry cask storage containers withstood hurricane and earthquake forces at Fukushima, Japan. He said that the source of radiation leaking was caused within the plant itself when the generators failed in the reactors and cooling pools there.
The benefits of accepting this facility in our area are alluring. The entire state would reap long-term revenue in the form of host fees and other related income. The county would receive an initial capital investment of $154 million, and $10 million per year in tax collection. It is easy to see why our elected officials opted to continue this discussion with residents.
Many concerns were brought up at the meeting Thursday. Terrorists, accidents, natural disasters were all mentioned as potential scenarios for catastrophe. Mr. Jones and Professor McDeavitt answered each question. The system is as foolproof as can be, he said, with safeguards in place to deal with unexpected situations.
Terrorists with enough power to impact the dry cask containers would likely choose another target, one with a bigger immediate payoff such as a crowded area. The containers are huge and would be difficult to move. The facility would be guarded around the clock.
As for earthquakes or crashes, the containers can withstand great force, including an aircraft crashing into them, the two representatives explained. Transport would occur by rail, with only two casks per train. Each would be placed on its own car and separated from the engine and from the other car by a buffer car.
Water contamination was mentioned as there is no more precious commodity in the desert than potable water. Mr. Jones and Professor McDeavitt said that the site is not located within our water district or near any potable aquifers.
In the event of a leak, radiation from these spent fuel rods would not travel more than half a mile unless it were somehow pulverized and blown about. The footprint of the facility would cover about 350 acres. It would be surrounded by a buffer zone of another 2,000 or more acres.
The site they are interested in is located near Kent on FM 2424. It is currently owned by the Hughes family.
Residents living near the site were present at the meeting asking what the impact would be on their homes and ranch lands. Concerns about property values were brought up as well as concerns for the wellbeing of humans and animals in the area.
In January of 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission released its final report. Contained within that report are the following key points:
8.Active U.S. leadership in international efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation, and security concerns
The 5th and 6th points above are the ones that are leading to consideration of a central site in Culberson county, in Lea and Eddy county in New Mexico or another yet to be named site.
Transport of waste material to a central storage site is a concern and was the focus of the questions posed by Karen Hadden, director of The Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition (SEED). Her organization also hosts NukeFreeTexas.org.
Ms. Hadden offered statistics on the likelihood of accidents occurring should waste be transported via highway or rail and asked, why a central location? Would it not be safer to use dry cask storage sites near the nuclear facilities around the country rather than transporting this waste across thousands of miles?
Although the representatives made every effort to reassure the attendees that dry cask storage systems are the most safe way to deal with this waste, there is no denying that spent nuclear fuel is among the highest level, most dangerous radioactive waste in existence.
Of particular note is the sheer length of time these materials remain dangerous. From the NRC site:
After 24,000 years, Plutonium is half as dangerous as it was initially. A nearly unfathomable number for a nation that has been around just over 200 years. The site also provides this information about just how dangerous it really is:
“High-level wastes are hazardous because they produce fatal radiation doses during short periods of direct exposure. For example, 10 years after removal from a reactor, the surface dose rate for a typical spent fuel assembly exceeds 10,000 rem/hour â€“ far greater than the fatal whole-body dose for humans of about 500 rem received all at once. If isotopes from these high-level wastes get into groundwater or rivers, they may enter food chains. The dose produced through this indirect exposure would be much smaller than a direct-exposure dose, but a much larger population could be exposed.â€
The proposed site in Culberson county has appeal for its remote location as well as the areaâ€™s relatively dry climate. Those unfamiliar with our desert terrain may assume this means little risk of flooding. In actuality the area has a great deal of topographic relief, with hills, canyons and arroyos. In addition, FM 2424 has two warnings about water on the road and two gauges to measure flooding.
Among the many questions asked, some were more farfetched than others. Mr. Jones and Professor McDeavitt stressed that terrorists, earthquakes and radioactive bunnies were unlikely to cause harm.
The things that Professor McDeavitt admitted to being concerned about is corrosion. It is a small word, compared to the things those of us in attendance were imagining, but it is not to be ignored. Corrosion or failure of one or more of the casks combined with an unexpected natural disaster such as flooding or tornado could spread dangerous radioactive waste to surrounding areas.
He advised that any local government taking this on must write into its initial contracts steep financial penalties for exceeding the length of the lease on the location of this project.
Van Horn is a rural town that like most others across America, is struggling to attract more businesses to the ara. The surrounding beauty, and the fast paced traffic moving through town every day isnâ€™t enough to generate growth or bring conveniences found in more populated or wealthy areas. A project like this could transform the town, shore up our crumbling historic buildings, lower taxes and increase government services.
But at what cost? Are the risks worth the benefits? Can we trust the scientists and politicians who assure us that this is perfectly safe and the risks involved are negligible? Many questions remain, among them the question of who will decide whether or not this facility will be built in our community.
If you have strong opinions one way or another on this subject, or pertinent questions, now is the time to make sure your voice is heard. Do we feel that our government and the nuclear industry can be trusted to keep us safe with this highly toxic material?