TUCUMCARI — Ed Hughs is a rancher and agricultural engineer but these days carries around a briefcase stuffed with legal documents and government contracts.
The documents detail the federal government’s plans to drill boreholes into the earth, including one on ranch land outside this small town on the eastern edge of New Mexico. The U.S. Department of Energy hopes these narrow, granite cavities could be used to bury some of the nation’s growing stockpile of nuclear waste. Hughs is one of the leaders of the opposition in rural Quay County, an area that once appeared to welcome the federal project as an economic boon but now has grown staunchly against it.
“These folks, they face drought, they face uncertain markets, they face fire, they face hail and they are not scared of much,” Hughs said. “But this is completely over the top. If something happens, if there is a spill, our [agriculture] industry is done. And I think our industry would be done if the borehole even got started.”
More than 200 miles to the south, in Eddy County, John Heaton, vice chairman of the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, has been lobbying for a decade to bring more radioactive waste to the state’s southeast corner, already home to the nation’s only deep underground repository of low-level nuclear refuse and an uranium enrichment factory.
“The people in southeast New Mexico have a very high nuclear IQ,” Heaton told reporters last week in Washington, D.C., where he and others traveled to collect support for a proposal by a private company, Holtec International, to build temporary storage space near Carlsbad for spent nuclear fuel rods from nuclear reactors.
He listed Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range as evidence.
“New Mexico is a nuclear state,” Heaton said.
The embrace of nuclear waste by Eddy and Lea counties and Quay County’s opposition to the borehole project illustrate the wrenching debate going on not only within the state but across the nation, where the question of which community should carry the nation’s vast nuclear burden has no clear answer.
New Mexico’s historical ties to nuclear energy have complicated the debate. The state was the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and since the 1940s has served as a burial ground for radioactive waste generated from nuclear research and weapons development. And increasingly, energy officials have looked to the economically impoverished state — one of the poorest in the nation — and its wide-open stretches of underpopulated land as a disposal place for both government and commercially generated nuclear waste.
And even as other states, including Nevada and Texas, have steeled their opposition to taking nuclear waste, New Mexico has been torn between the economic prospects of accepting more of the nation’s growing stockpile and the generational consequences of having toxic material injected into the earth.
“Our part of the state is providing a solution for the entire country. What more can you ask?” said Jay Jenkins, president of the Carlsbad National Bank and a member of the mayor’s nuclear opportunities committee. “I am real excited about it, not only as a solution for one of our nation’s problems, but it is also good for New Mexico.”
A national failure
When Eddy County was first identified for potential nuclear waste disposal in 1972, the area was a lot like Quay County: rarely occupied countryside stretching for miles between towns. The main economic driver in Eddy County at the time, the potash mining industry, was in decline.
In 1987, Congress designated the Southern New Mexico salt caverns for low-level waste storage. The caverns were seen as a potential saving grace to the extensive waste developed in the race to build nuclear weapons during the Cold War. That led to the creation of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which opened near Carlsbad in 1999.
High-level waste was to go inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But after two decades and billions of dollars invested, the site still has not opened.
When President Barack Obama took office, he killed funding for Yucca Mountain, fulfilling a campaign promise that the site was a proven failure. It was time “to start exploring new alternatives for safe, long-term solutions based on sound science,” he said.
President Donald Trump has proposed restoring funding for Yucca Mountain, including $120 million over the next fiscal year for the repository and affiliated storage.
But it was under Obama’s leadership and his establishment of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Energy, which sought to review all policies for nuclear waste disposal, that the missions for the borehole and consolidated spent fuel sites were established.
“This nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly,” the commission wrote in a 2012 report. “It will be even more damaging and more costly the longer it continues.”
The amount of waste is vast and growing.
The sitting waste from uranium fuel rods spent in nuclear reactors totals at least 143 million pounds, enough to cover a football field and fill it 50 feet deep, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. And the nuclear power industry is generating an additional 5 million pounds of spent uranium each year, the Blue Ribbon Commission found. In the next 30 years, the amount of waste could reach as much as 440 million pounds.
Additional high-level radioactive waste has resulted from nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy’s national laboratories. As of 2015, 90 million gallons of this waste (about 90 football fields, each filled to a 10-foot depth) had accumulated.
The Blue Ribbon Commission’s first recommendation, resulting from the extensive public and political pushback in Nevada, was a “consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste management facilities” — a process of encouraging communities to volunteer for or be persuaded with incentives to host nuclear waste projects in their areas.
Since the 1970s, state and community consent has been a key consideration in locating waste repositories, but it is not a legal requirement. The federal government has final say over where this waste goes, regardless of public opinion.
By 2015, the Department of Energy and nuclear waste contractors were looking for borehole sites across the country that might have the right subsurface geology and people willing to welcome the projects in their towns.
The first bid for the borehole project failed in North Dakota and South Dakota that year. And when contractors approached other communities in 2016, the promise that nuclear waste would not go into the test holes was added explicitly to proposal documents.
In December, the Department of Energy awarded contracts to companies to move forward with Phase 1 — winning community support — over a five-month period for possible boreholes in Quay and Otero counties, as well as sites in Texas and South Dakota. The Department of Energy will award money for Phase 2 in May, and at that time, some of these sites may be eliminated from consideration.
Simultaneously, proposals for consolidated temporary storage of nuclear fuel rods have been made in Texas and South Carolina, in addition to New Mexico.
‘We are expendable’
On a recent Tuesday night, more than 160 people gathered at the Tucumcari Convention Center in a room adorned with hastily constructed signs that read, “Leave our land alone” and “Our community, Our land, Our lives; No borehole.”
The group prayed for rain, then stayed for two hours as the sun set and the wind began to howl outside. A tornado warning was issued for the nearby Texas plains. The next day, golf ball-sized hail would fall. But for most of the people in the room, the apocalypse would not come from the sky. Instead, they see a more existential end to life as they know it.
TJ Smith, a native of Quay County, recited what the federal contractors, DOSECC Core Drilling Services, based in Utah, and Atlanta-based Enercon Federal Service Inc., a key nuclear decommissioning company for the Department of Energy, had said at previous meetings: that the borehole site near Nara Visa, a small village about 50 miles northeast of Tucumcari, was chosen because of the granite topography below the earth, its seismic stability and its distance from oil and gas operations. Officials say it is purely experimental and no waste would accompany the project.
“But the truth is, we are expendable. There are just not enough of us,” Smith said. “If something goes wrong, we are in such a sparsely populated area of low income that we are expendable. And it is just an actuarial decision on the government’s part. They are not trying to locate this close to a metropolitan area. They want it in the middle of nowhere.”
For a few months, Quay County was the only county in the nation to gain the support of its local political representatives to develop a test borehole site. The County Commission in October passed a resolution supporting the project.
All that has changed. As residents in Nara Visa came to learn more about the project, they formed a coalition of opposition.
The Quay County Commission adopted a new resolution March 27 declaring withdrawal of support “because of overwhelming public opposition.”
State Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, the superintendent of Logan Municipal Schools, also pulled his support based on concerns raised by teachers and parents in the district.
So far, 900 people have signed a petition opposing the borehole project, roughly an eighth of the county’s population.
Hughs said the money offered by the government — an estimated $35 million investment — won’t make up for what the county will lose. He says the agricultural industry alone in Quay County is worth more than $560 million and calls the area one of the best places in the nation to raise cattle.
“Who is going to want to buy livestock from an area that is a nuclear waste disposal area?” He said. “You stand a real risk, I think, of replacing one economy, which is an agricultural, solid, sustainable, renewable economy — and our family has been here over a hundred years doing the same thing and we keep right on — with a pollution-based economy.”
He also pointed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where a radiation leak in a drum on Feb. 14, 2014, caused the plant to close for almost three years.
“We understand there isn’t nuclear waste to start with,” he said, but a reasonable person could see “there is a very good chance, long term, that this would become a nuclear waste disposal site if there is good granite down there.”
Concerns also have been raised about water contamination, should waste be stored in the boreholes.
Kent Satterwhite, manager of the Sanford, Texas-based Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, wrote to Quay County to express concerns over the project. The Canadian River supplies drinking water to 500,000 people and runs through Eastern New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. As a tributary of the Arkansas River, which flows into the Mississippi River, the water of the Canadian River eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
Also, below ground there is the Ogallala Aquifer, which intersects with eight Western states from Texas to South Dakota.
“If there were an accidental release,” Satterwhite wrote, “ … all surface waters, agricultural lands, etc. in the region could be essentially lost forever.”
At the end of recent meetings in Logan, Tucumcari and Dalhart, Texas, organizers asked members of the public to raise their hands in support of the project. No one did.
The ‘nuclear state’
But down south, supporters say they have found the perfect spot for consolidating all of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel waste.
Florida-based Holtec International, the nation’s largest exporter of nuclear energy equipment, filed an application with the Nuclear Regulation Commission late last month to permit a spent fuel storage site in partnership with the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance — a consortium of the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, as well as Eddy County and Lea County — which supports nuclear energy development in the region.
“It is a safe project, handled correctly, and it’s something that our nation needs,” said state Sen. Carroll Leavell, R-Jal. “I can’t think of a better place than Lea and Eddy County, New Mexico.”
The facility, which would span roughly 1,000 acres just off N.M. 62, halfway between Hobbs and Carlsbad, could open as soon as 2022. The land for the site was purchased by the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance, and officials say the dry, flat plains, at least two dozen miles from any town, are ideal for carving a 23-foot-deep underground storage repository for spent fuel.
Officials say it could be held there safely for decades until a permanent repository is created.
The plan, which could create hundreds of jobs, has been endorsed by Gov. Susana Martinez, state lawmakers, city and county officials in the area, and the state’s environmental regulatory agencies.
Leavell said he has not received any calls, email or letters expressing concern or protest from his constituents about the proposed temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel rods.
“Lea and Eddy county have lived with the nuclear material since 1997, and I honestly think that it would supply jobs, good-paying jobs, and would be an asset,” he said. Those communities that oppose nuclear waste do so, he said, because “they fail to get all the information before they reach a decision.”
State Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, also said WIPP has encouraged the community to grow the nuclear industry.
“I think a lot of people are afraid of change, a lot of people won’t take the time to learn and form an opinion based off of their own investigation. They listen to the hype,” he said. “WIPP has been instrumental, not only in our nation’s energy plan, but it is also been a very good industry for our communities in Eddy and Lea County in particular.
“If they [Holtec] perform like WIPP has, we will be tickled to death to have them,” he said.
In 2015, WIPP employed 1,000 people, and it has received more than $200 million annually in federal funding for the past 15 years.
Kris Singh, president and CEO of Holtec International, lauded the safety of the site, saying it is so safe to the environment, “you could literally set up your blanket on top and have a picnic and not get anywhere near the radiation you get from the sun.”
Just 35 miles away and across the border in Andrews, Texas, Waste Control Specialists is also seeking to gain regulatory approval to bring high-level spent fuel waste to its existing low-level waste storage site, but divisions have rippled through the town. The project is a year ahead of Holtec and has elicited over 130 public comments, largely negative.
“I absolutely oppose the storage of irradiated, spent nuclear fuel in either west Texas or southeastern New Mexico,” one commenter wrote, saying it would endanger “huge portions of our population, for whom exposure would mean death and an environmental dead zone reminiscent of Chernobyl,” referring to the site of a 1986 nuclear disaster in the former Soviet Union.
The state of Texas also sued the Department of Energy last month on the premise that these alternative storage sites violate the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act and that the federal government should be legally bound to get waste out of Texas by opening Yucca Mountain. Lawmakers in Nevada maintain they have no interest in seeing the repository open in their state.
Some of this dissent may still unfold in southeastern New Mexico. For Hughs, the core objections to a nuclear future are more tangible.
“I love the wide-open space, the elbow room,” he said of Quay County. The federal government would be “changing the whole culture, the whole environment. We shouldn’t lose it. It’s not throwaway space.”
Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or email@example.com.