NARA VISA, N.M. — They say the price of gas was the last straw. It was too costly to bring fuel to this tiny speck of a town 50 miles northeast of Tucumcari along the Texas border. And too few buyers were interested once it got here. When the last truck stop, the Red-X, closed down, the cafe and one of two motels followed. People started leaving. Kids grew up and moved away with too few jobs available for miles along these vast, desert plains that turn purple like a bruise in winter. They didn’t bring their families back. That was 11 years ago.
Now the town has a ghost-like quality. There’s just a fast highway down the main stretch and homes tucked away along dirt roads, many abandoned with the doors left open and windows broken. Over the years, the wind and rain have seeped in, rotting the wood and sweeping in layers of red dirt. The signs for the Bell St. Mini Mart, Ira’s Bar and the Rockin’ Horse antique shop are weatherworn and washed out almost beyond recognition, with bent venetian blinds drawn sideways and concrete roofs partially caved in. A handmade sign nailed to a wooden portico on the main street reads, “Keep Out.”
Nara Visa was never big to begin with, but fewer than 100 people remain.
This near emptiness, however, has attracted a new business to the community, one that promises, like a honey-toned traveling salesman, to bring jobs — and maybe even a grocery store — by way of the nuclear waste industry.
The U.S. Department of Energy, Quay County and two energy development companies say the nation’s latest nuclear waste experiment could inject as much as $40 million into the county’s economy. Nara Visa residents just have to agree to let the companies drill a three-mile-deep borehole — seven times deeper than the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad — into the crystalline, granite crust of the earth a few miles outside of town, on land currently occupied by fat, black cattle.
Right now, the project is pegged as a scientific experiment, and the Department of Energy says no nuclear waste will be placed in the test borehole. Still, the ultimate goal is to find a permanent place to dispose of the ever-growing and deadly stockpile of spent nuclear fuel rods and high-level radioactive waste collected at nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons laboratories nationwide.
Until this year, no town in the United States had agreed to the proposal. But when the Quay County Commission approved the plan in October, it put Nara Visa on track to become the first.
About seven miles outside Nara Visa, there is a small, gravel roadside park where semi-truck drivers pull off U.S. 54 to sleep. Below the earth, the granite is devoid of oil but just right for deep drilling.
These 10 acres belong to Louis and Elaine James, who’ve agreed to lease it to the government as a deep borehole test site.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Elaine James, 65. “A lot of the people’s concerns are what might happen in the future, because of the type of experiments they are doing, but basically it is just a science project.”
She raised four children in Nara Visa and said it would be nice for future generations to learn about fields outside of ranching, like science and math. “Kids are limited to what careers might be available because we don’t have industry.”
“For me, it’s kind of like our space program,” she continued. “A lot of people thought that was a waste of money, but so much of our technology and medical fields have benefited from the space program.”
As far as the nuclear waste component is concerned, Louis James, 69, said, “I have more of a problem with it sitting over at Pantex 100 miles away than I do with it being under the ground, because you know it will get you if they ever attack those spots.” He was referring to the Pantex Plant, a nuclear weapons assembly facility outside Amarillo, Texas.
While he doesn’t think the nuclear waste will necessarily come to Nara Visa, he said, “the atomic bomb has made us a free nation now, so it’s gotta be put somewhere.”
The test hole planned for the James’ property is meant to be just 8 1/2 inches wide but would go deep below ground, first through the water table and a mile through sediment before hitting the top of a crystalline rock layer. From there, the hole would be drilled another two miles into the Earth. This is the layer where nuclear waste would be stored, then sealed off with a steel casing and concrete to protect the environment and water in the mile span separating the waste from the land’s surface.
Utah-based DOSECC Exploration Services LLC and Enercon Federal Services, Inc., based in Atlanta, are developing the Nara Visa proposal and are one of four groups that have been granted the go-ahead from the Department of Energy for Phase 1 of the project. This is referred to as “community buy-in,” gaining not only public approval but also support for the project, and securing the land for the borehole site.
After an initial round of bidding last year, the winning company, the massive national security and sciences company Battelle, lost its bid when it failed to gain public support at two sites in North Dakota and South Dakota.
If DOSECC and Enercon win this bid, they will get $35 million over a five-year period to drill the first hole. The Department of Energy will grant an additional $50 million to drill a second, wider borehole, with a 17 1/2-inch diameter, if the first is successful.
Peter Mast, president of Enercon Federal Services, said the project could create 20 temporary jobs and between six and 12 permanent positions. At a public meeting in Nara Visa in October, he told residents that workers might need lodging, food and laundry services, which could create more jobs.
Geology and poverty
When the Quay County Commission approved the proposal Oct. 10, it emphasized that the project would encourage investment in the county and educational programs for citizens and public school students, and that, “at the end of the project, an effort will be made to turn this deep granite borehole into a permanent subsurface geologic observatory.”
State Rep. Dennis Roch, a Republican from the nearby village of Logan who is also the superintendent of the Logan Municipal Schools, said his science and math teachers are excited about the project, as are educators at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari.
“The entire region could use a shot in the arm of federal dollars,” he said. “But I’m more interested in the educational opportunities.”
He said that after meeting with the companies, he felt confident there was “no connection between this viability test and the ultimate decision of where to dispose of nuclear waste way down the road.”
“I think it is a win-win for Quay County and Eastern New Mexico,” he said.
Like Quay County, the three other counties selected for Phase 1 — including Otero County in Southern New Mexico, Pecos County in Texas and Haakon County in South Dakota — share more than just ideal geologies. They’re also poor, with per capita incomes far below the national average.
Dennis Nielson, president of DOSECC Exploration Services, which is working with the Energy Department and Enercon to develop the project, said the economic factors in the communities surrounding the borehole sites was a factor “in that this is, in my mind, an opportunity for economic development.”
Nielson said the borehole could create these opportunities by establishing a type of below-surface laboratory to study geology and geothermal energy. A nearly six-mile-deep borehole near Windischeschenbach, Germany, has been used in this way. Another exists in Russia.
The company also was looking for places remote enough that the drilling wouldn’t “be bothering people,” Nielson said.
The Nara Visa site would only be permitted for drilling, he added. Nuclear waste storage would require an entirely different permitting and regulatory process.
“You can always figure out a way. The federal government can get around anything,” he said. “But the likelihood of that is very remote. We have no intention of putting nuclear waste in there.”
Needs and concerns
Despite these promises, some residents in Nara Visa are skeptical, wondering why federal officials would spend so much money drilling a hole if they weren’t going to put nuclear waste in it.
In the shadow of a small, white church — its doors locked except on Sundays — Toni Earle, 41, had just gotten home from her job as a mail carrier.
“I hope it ain’t happening,” she said of the project. “I don’t agree with what they are talking about. I don’t think that’s very good for our little community. There is nothing left [here], other than some really good people.”
Earle moved with her husband to Nara Visa 25 years ago, before things began closing. There are few conveniences in Nara Visa today. Parents have to drive their children 12 miles to the county line to get the school bus. To buy groceries, residents must drive to Tucumcari or Dalhart, Texas, both about 50 miles away. Many residents have taken to keeping a 5-gallon tank of gas handy for passing travelers who reach town on empty, not realizing there is no place to refuel for miles.
“I don’t even like the thought of it coming to Nara Visa or any town,” Earle said of the borehole project. “I heard about Carlsbad — that could happen here, easily,” she said, referring to a February 2014 radiation leak that occurred half a mile below ground at WIPP, causing the facility to shutter for almost three years.
“Both crop and cattle will be suffering for it,” said her 23-year-old son, Jonathan, who was living at home before heading to school in Colorado. Several mismatched kittens swarmed at his feet.
“I don’t really know what to think,” another resident, Ada Niles, 76, said of the borehole project. She went to one of the community meetings held in Nara Visa in October by Enercon’s president, Mast, and said, “The guy talked like it’d be a good thing. Then the kids got on the computer. … If they are going to put nuclear waste in [the borehole], we don’t want it.”
Niles raises cattle, like most people in Nara Visa, and runs the Western Stars Motel, the only business in town aside from the post office. It, too, may close, she said. Mostly, it’s occupied by one or two temporary construction workers who rent by the week.
“That’s the main concern with the ranchers: Is it going to affect our cattle, is it going to affect our water?” she said. She is also concerned that drilling could cause more earthquakes, like the tremors Nara Visa had over the summer. Company officials say the sites were selected to avoid harming groundwater and hitting fault lines.
Niles’ daughter-in-law, Sandra Evans, 50, said they were told the workers who would come to Nara Visa for the borehole project would need “houses to rent, cook, clean, do laundry. He stressed a lot of this.”
“That’d be nice,” Niles said. “If we had some new people.”
Waste piling up
As of 2010, there were at least 109,300 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste and spent fuel awaiting a final resting place, according to a study that year by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. In 1987, Congress agreed to put low-level, transuranic waste at WIPP and send much of this high-level waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, where it would be stored in tunnels mined into the mountain rock.
But over the years, there was increasing public outcry in Nevada, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and President Barack Obama both opposed the Yucca Mountain project, defunding it in 2010. A plan to recycle excess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel at a Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina also was defunded by Obama.
Meanwhile, WIPP, after being closed for nearly three years following the radiation leak, began depositing waste below ground for the first time this month. But the stagnation of waste disposal at these facilities had left the Energy Department scrambling for alternatives, and in 2012, deep boreholes resurfaced as a potential alternative, an idea that was first floated in the 1950s.
To store all of the waste sitting at 77 U.S. facilities, the Energy Department needs to drill 950 boreholes at an estimated $20 million per hole, or $71 billion for the entire project, including transportation, environmental reclamation, monitoring and site characterization, according to the 2010 Sandia study. In contrast, Yucca Mountain was estimated to cost $96 billion.
Each hole is expected to contain 400 vertically stacked fuel pods that, unlike the costly steel drums used to pack waste headed to WIPP, would not require specialized containers but instead would be stored in their spent fuel form or glass. Multiple boreholes could be drilled just over 200 meters apart to avoid thermal reactions.
Though the Sandia study said boreholes could be used for nuclear reactor waste, Mast from Enercon said he believes the Energy Department is only looking at boreholes for waste from nuclear weapons development. Officials with the company will be meeting with state and federal officials in Santa Fe later this month to seek regulatory approval, Mast said.
To actually begin placing nuclear waste in the boreholes will require an amendment to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Before the proposal reaches that stage, Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a community watchdog, says the government should be more transparent about exactly what type of high-level nuclear waste would go in the holes: spent fuel rods, nuclear weapons waste or down-blended plutonium.
The Department of Energy “gets a toe in the door” with the test hole, he said. “People become dependent on the flow of money; they get stars in their eyes.”
He said the decision surrounding the borehole project should be considered statewide, not just by the county.
“Before anything like this should happen,” he said, “there should be meetings around the state so a lot more clarity can be brought to the process.”
Even in Nara Visa, residents said they are still unclear about the true implications of the proposal.
“What they are putting on paper makes sense,” said Sandra Evans. “But is it going to help us or hurt us?”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.