As Blake Roberts bounced along a single-lane dirt road in his red Ford Super Duty pickup he pointed to a pumpjack bobbing in the West Texas heat.
“Everything we do revolves around oil,” Roberts said as he neared his home outside the town of Andrews in the heart of the booming Permian Basin oil field.
But Roberts, 29, has his eye on what he hopes will be the next big thing for the area: nuclear waste. As president of the local chamber of commerce, knows that oil booms are inevitably followed by busts.
He is supporting a plan to establish a repository in the desert about 30 miles outside of town for as much as 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel and waste from power plants.
If approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the project could bring jobs and revenue to the area and help break a political logjam that has stranded tons of the waste at 72 power plants and other sites across the country.
“We need to have income from something other than oil money,” Roberts said.
Local support for the project is strong, said County Judge Charlie Falcon, who presides over the four-member Andrews County Commissioners’ Court, which functions as the county’s board of commissioners.
The panel approved a resolution in 2015 backing the idea to accept high-level nuclear waste at the designated site, and is likely to reiterate its support with a letter in the near future, Falcon said during an interview in his chambers in the brick courthouse on Main Street.
“We’ve been primarily oil-based here since 1929 and we live and die by oil prices,” said Falcon, 53, a lifelong Andrews resident. “My interest is in diversifying so we can have other sources of revenue come to our community. So we have have other sources of living.”
The plan by Interim Storage Partners LLC, a joint venture between Orano CIS LLC and Waste Control Specialists LLC, calls for waste to be shipped by rail from around the country. Then it would be sealed in giant concrete casks and stored above ground for as long as 100 years, or at least until a permanent repository is built.
Opponents say that could be never.
There is reason for skepticism: Congress in 1987 designated a ridge in the Nevada desert about 90 miles north of Las Vegas called Yucca Mountain to be the nation’s repository. But decades of political opposition led by Nevada Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kept the project from moving forward. In 2010, President Barack Obama scrapped the plan though President Donald Trump has taken steps to revive it.
In the meantime, the U.S. has no permanent place of its own to store radioactive material that will remain deadly for several thousand years.
Andrews isn’t the only place seeking nuclear waste. Just across the border, a similar project in eastern New Mexico is also awaiting NRC approval. While Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state’s Democratic governor, has been vocal about her opposition to Holtec International Corp.’s proposed storage site, local officials in Lea and Eddy counties have voiced support for a facility they expect to bring jobs and revenue to the region.
Not everyone in Andrews is on board with the idea of storing waste that can remain radioactive for thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years.
“We don’t need to put it right in the middle of the biggest oil field in the world,” said Tommy Taylor, director of oil and gas development for Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd. of Midland, Texas, which is part of a coalition of oil and gas producers and landowners opposed to the nuclear dump.
More than 4 million barrels of crude are produced every day in the Permian Basin and drillers say a leak or terrorist attack could put the oil boom at risk. “It would shut the whole Permian down. The result would be catastrophic for us,” he said.
Said Andrews resident Elizabeth Padilla: “It only takes one accident and we would become the Chernobyl of West Texas.”
Some surrounding counties and cities have adopted resolutions against the plan. It’s also drawn opposition from national environmental groups.
Interim Storage Partners says there is “no scientific basis” to the fear the area’s oil and gas production would be jeopardized by the project. The company also said other concerns about accidents during transportation and water contamination were also unfounded as the nuclear waste would be securely contained and shielded. A radiological release during transport has never occurred in the U.S. despite more than 2,700 shipments of spent nuclear fuel since 1965.
Andrews is no stranger to nuclear waste. Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists began storing low-level nuclear waste, such as irradiated gloves and other medical equipment, at the site near the New Mexico border in 2012.
The facility employs more than 100 people, and under an agreement with Andrews County, 5% of its gross receipts goes back to the county — nearly $12 million dollars since they opened, according to the company. That money has paid for new fire trucks, a jail, food pantry and other projects.
The revenue would increase to $10 million a year if the high-level waste storage plan moves forward, according to a report prepared by the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission.
“It sure makes it easier when you have some money for the community,” said Morse Haynes, executive director of the Andrews Economic Development Corporation, after giving a tour of Andrews that included a stop at a community pool funded by Waste Control Specialists that featured water slides, a pirate themed spray park, and a rock climbing wall jutting out of the deep end.
“The low level nuclear waste has been a very big plus, but it’s a totally different ball game when you go from low level nuclear waste to high level,” Haynes said. “It’s something the community has to decide.”
Several regulars at Cassidy’s Sub Shop on Andrew’s Main Street said they supported bringing high level waste to the area for reasons ranging from job diversification to a sense of patriotic duty.
“They’ve got to find a place in the middle of nowhere and that’s in the middle of nowhere,” said Reo Brownlee, 63, as he prepared to tuck into a plate of sunny side up eggs and toast. “It’s good for Andrews, it’s more jobs diversification.”
Four others sitting at the wooden table agreed, but not Joe Bateman, a 64-year-old retired oil field worker, who was wearing a white fedora.
“There’s nothing we need bad enough to drag that stuff across the country,” he said. “If you don’t bring it here there’s no chance of an accident.”
Countered Brad Young, a 68-year-old who previously served on the county commission, “Sometimes we have to ask what’s best for the country.”
And despite his opposition, Bateman conceded proponents of the project outnumber opponents. He estimated that 80% of people in town support it.
A panel of administrative judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently convened a hearing at the neighboring Midland County Courthouse and heard arguments from environmentalists, oil industry representatives and other groups. Outside, protesters gathered around an eight-foot-tall, green-and-black inflatable replica of a storage cask bearing a sign reading “Say No To Radioactive Waste.”
Kevin Kamps, an official with Takoma Park, Maryland-based group Beyond Nuclear, who drove to Midland for the hearing, said in an interview that high-level nuclear waste bound for Andrews would travel through major cities.
“The transport risks are for the entire country and they haven’t even been alerted,” Kamps said.
Other opponents expressed worry about the site’s proximity to the Ogallala Aquifer, a underground reservoir that spans eight states that supplies water for drinking and irrigation to millions of people.
Interim Storage Partners said the Texas Water Development Board has confirmed through their own studies that the site is not above or adjacent to a drinking water source and that the area was intentionally sited atop a 600-foot thick bed of red clay that is 10 times less permeable than concrete.
The project has powerful backers. As Texas Governor, Rick Perry encouraged storing high level nuclear waste in the state and, as U.S. Energy secretary, he has been supportive of interim nuclear waste storage. The current governor, Greg Abbott, is opposed.
Scott State, the chief executive officer of Waste Control Specialists, which is owned by J.F. Lehman & Co., said he was optimistic the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would approve the license for the project, though additional approvals, such as plans for transporting waste, need to be approved before storage can begin, he said.
Rose Gardner, a 61-year-old grandmother who owns a floral shop in Eunice, N.M., about five miles away from the proposed nuclear dump, said she will do everything in her power to stop that from happening.
“We will appeal and appeal and appeal,” she said in an interview. “We will do whatever we have to throw a monkey wrench inside their plans to open a deadly dump.”