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West Texas May Have an Answer to Pilgrim's Nuclear Waste Problem

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Waste Control Specialists
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The company that owns the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth recently said it will close that plant in 2019, but that doesn't mean the windows there will be boarded up anytime soon.

The plant’s decommissioning could take decades; and a big part of that will be trying to figure out what to do with all the nuclear waste that’s stored at Pilgrim. And that’s a problem other aging nuclear plants around the country will be thinking about as they shut down in the coming years.

For this story, we turn to Travis Bubenik, our exchange host from Marfa Public Radio. Travis tells us that back in his home in the West Texas desert, there may be a solution to Pilgrim's—and the nation's—nuclear waste problem.

 

If a company called Waste Control Specialists has its way, people with nuclear reactors in their backyards will come to know a lot more about Andrews County, Texas in the decades ahead.

It’s a hardscrabble part of oilfield country on the Texas-New Mexico border, where WCS wants to store used nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants—possibly for a very long time.

The idea is this would be an “interim” site—but the company’s president, Rod Baltzer, is open about the fact that “interim” could mean 60 to 100 years.

“You know, you talk about interim and you think it’s a couple weeks," Baltzer said. "This is interim because it’s an interim step between where it’s at now to get to a permanent repository, but it’s still a long period of time.”

The company just last week applied for a federal high-level waste license, which is good news for other nuclear plants that are running out of room to store their own waste.

Baltzer said the folks in Andrews County are all for the idea of storing more nuclear waste in the area. But there’s bound to be others in the region who will say this is a bad idea. It’s hard to find people that want to live anywhere near nuclear waste.

Duxbury, Massachusetts resident Mary Lampert doesn’t want to—but she does. She can see the Pilgrim plant across the water from her house:
 
“It’s on the end of that point, you can see lights at night… too bad isn’t it?”

Lampert’s the head of Pilgrim Watch, a group that’s been saying that plant’s unsafe for decades. She’s happy it’s closing, but she still worries about all that waste staying put there.

“This is not the spot for a high-level waste dump,” she said.

Lampert’s well-versed in debates about nuclear energy and waste. She helped put together a 160-page “Citizen Handbook” outlining her group’s concerns about the Pilgrim plant. But she doesn’t pretend to have the answer to the waste problem. She said it’s a situation with “no good choices.”

“You know, will I be glad if it leaves here? Sure!" she said. "Will I feel badly for whoever receives it? Yea!”

Cape and Islands Senator Dan Wolf’s been a Pilgrim critic for years, saying the plant’s aging technology makes it a big risk. He wants the waste to go somewhere away from population centers—and therefore, away from his district.

“To me, in the long run, it makes sense to have a single or a small number of centralized sites, where we relocate all the spent fuel rod assemblies to those sites," Wolf said. "The question is how do we get there.”

But like Lampert, Wolf said he understands how it would feel to be on the receiving end of the waste.

“I wouldn’t be very happy if there was a closing nuclear power plant in West Texas, and they had identified my district as a place to send the spent fuel," Wolf said. "So I am very sympathetic to the folks in West Texas who say wait a minute, why did we become the repository for Massachusetts spent fuel?”

Wolf said there needs to be incentives for communities willing to take on nuclear waste. And in Andrews County, the incentive is money.

In voting to support the high-level waste plan, commissioners there cited the $5 million the county’s already been getting from the existing WCS waste site, and the millions more expected in the years ahead. It’s a good paycheck for a rural West Texas county, where people are hurting from the drop in oil prices.

It’s frankly going to be awhile before any of this moves forward. Congress hasn’t even passed the law needed to allow the government to send nuclear waste away from power plants.

But Senator Wolf suggests a good first step would be getting those communities who have nuclear waste, and those who might have a home for it, to start talking openly about what they want the future to look like.