Sep 2 8:30 AM

Loving [hearts] nuclear waste

You are now entering Loving County, proposed home for a nuclear waste repository. (photo detail)
Matthew Rutledge

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.

In that first town, in Texas, there are actually some people lining up to aggressively lobby for the chance to be America’s nuclear dumping ground. “With the money that this would generate for the county, we might even be able to pay the taxpayers back,” said the county judge, Skeet Jones, in the New York Times. “We could build some roads. We could bring in some more water. We could have a town that’s incorporated, have a city council, maybe even start a school.”

And that federal money has inspired still bigger dreams for Judge Jones: “Maybe [we’d] even have a Walmart.”

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.

Unlike Loving, Texas, Fukushima, Japan, is already plenty contaminated. The earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, caused multiple catastrophic failures at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility. Damage to cooling systems and reactor containment sent massive amounts of radionuclides into the atmosphere, blanketing the region with radioactive fallout, and necessitating the evacuation of nearly 200,000 residents, 125,000 of which still remain displaced.

Contaminated groundwater, mountain runoff, and wastewater used to cool Fukushima’s molten reactor cores poses a daily challenge, with thousands of above-ground storage tanks cluttering the land around the power plant, and tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated water leaking into the ocean every day.

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 incineration.)

But with the agreement from Mayor Sato, Fukushima will now build a 4,000-acre storage site close to the crippled nuclear plant to take the topsoil and other contaminated detritus collected from around the region.

While that may make sense to the outside observer — keeping the contaminated waste in an area already heavily contaminated — it has angered many former residents who see this as an official endorsement of making their relocations permanent.

Indeed, 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).

The government of Japan, however, is calling the new waste dump in Fukushima “temporary storage.” Current plans are to use the facility for about 30 years — roughly the time frame for the rosiest estimates of the nuclear plant’s decommissioning and cleanup — with a long-term waste storage facility still the stuff of government taskforces and hypothetical scenarios.

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.

A generation later, that repository does not exist. In the late 1990s, it was thought Nevada’s Yucca Mountain would be the answer, but questions about its long-term safety, disturbance to sacred Native American lands, construction delays, cost overruns and fierce political opposition have rendered Yucca if not clearly dead, at least very nearly dead.

But that leaves over 70 years of still highly radioactive “spent” nuclear fuel, some 70,000 tons, without a permanent storage site.

It is a problem for the nation and for the dozens of nuclear power facilities across the United States, all with their spent fuel storage pools packed many times beyond their original design capacity. (In fact, some of Fukushima’s most troubling post-quake scenarios involve its severely damaged spent fuel pools — and many U.S. pools are packed more densely than the ones in Japan.)

Nuclear plant operators are hot to get the problem of spent fuel storage off their hands (and off their books) and into the federal government’s, and so a plan for regional temporary storage facilities was born. And Loving, Texas, hopes to be one of those facilities.

But areas around Loving might be a tad less excited.

Any nuclear waste that might eventually live in Loving has to first get there — and there is currently no standard and universally recognized-as-safe way to transport much of this waste. Trains, barges and trucks all face safety and security concerns, not to mention opposition from communities that might not be as lucky as Loving could be in the Federal lottery.

And Loving, too, might want to examine this decision more carefully, for after the billions in government bribes, er, incentives are gone, the nuclear waste will likely linger on. In the history of nuclear power, just about everything once labeled “temporary” has had an unpleasant habit of becoming permanent. (And even if the waste is eventually moved, the area where it was once stored will require its own decommissioning, likely leaving it too radioactive for any other use for decades more.)

The good people of west Texas might want to look north, to a park just outside of Chicago, where a small dirt mound contains some of the still highly-radioactive remains of the world’s first atomic pile, which was constructed in December 1942. Many health experts would not recommend that spot for a lazy picnic, and they would also advise against drinking form nearby water fountains.

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.

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