About 20 percent of the United States' energy is derived from the 104 nuclear power plants across the nation. Harnessing the power of atomic energy is a complex business, but one that has proven to be efficient and relatively safe since its inception.
Despite its well-documented history, the construction of nuclear facilities has all but ground to a halt for several years. At least part of the reason why, is a lack of adequate disposal sites for spent fuel rods — the radioactive waste which needs to be contained and stored once they have exceeded their life expectancy at an operating plant.
Representatives from Austin-based Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative (AFCI) — a private company which has set its sights on developing such a site — were in Big Spring on Friday t oprovide information regarding a storage facility for nuclear waste and possibly even a reprocessing plant, which would recycle the material for further use.
Bill Jones, co-founder of AFCI and project manager for the site, addressed a crowd consisting of Rotary Club members and media in the Cactus Room on the Howard College campus.
“We don't represent any government agency,” Jones said. “We are the project developers. Our payday comes when the project actually happens. We're not here on behalf of anyone, this is our business.”
Yucca Mountain was the ambitious, Nevada-based project that upon completion, was supposed to safely hold the nation's spent fuel rods in a deep, geological formation within the mountain. Opposition at the state and national level has put Yucca Mountain on the back burner — at least for the time being — and other areas are being explored as alternative options.
“It is apparent to people in the business that Yucca Mountain will not happen,” Jones, a Texas A&M grad said. “We were invited to come to Big Spring. We heard it was a place interested in economic development opportunities.”
The proposal at this point is to have containers of the waste stored out in the open in specially fortified steel casks. They would remain there for any number of years until they are taken to a final disposal site, or can be recycled. Should the latter be the case and the storage site is already located in the region, a reprocessing plant could be built which would work in conjunction with the existing storage facility.
So how would this benefit the Crossroads area?
Well, if the project comes to fruition, it would mean another job boom.
Jones estimates that if a storage site were to be constructed, it would require about 180 construction jobs — which would likely be a mix of local and out of town workers, as well as 100 permanent jobs to maintain the facility.
The process would take at least a few years. The permitting and licensing phase can be lengthy and requires action at the local, state and federal levels. It would take an estimated 5-8 years just for a storage site to be developed and additional 15 years for a reprocessing plant to be completed.
Should a reprocessing plant be designated for construction, it would be an even larger employment boom, with upwards of 18,000 jobs to build the structure and up to 5,000 to operate it on a day-to-day basis.
Federal education funds could be allocated to any community willing to entertain the idea of having a nuclear waste facility. The funds would benefit area schools and colleges.
“The federal government wants to find a place,” Jones explained. “And they want to incentivize the location. If Howard County is chosen, they will make funds available for public education.”
Safety is always an issue when dealing with such volatile materials.
The casks which would house the waste have been extensively tested. The most extreme test of all came when the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan was ravaged by the 2011 tsunami. Though the plant sustained damage and some radiocative material leaked out of the containment area, the casks stored on site remained intact after being inundated with a 50-foot tidal wave as well as massive flooding — something quite rare in the desert of West Texas.
“We know they can survive a tsunami, we know they can survive earthquakes — they are built to withstand just about anything,” said Jones
The one realistic threat to public safety isn't a terrorist attack or even an act of God, but simple corrosion, Jones said.
The heavy steel casks would be monitored periodically to ensure they retain their structural integrity. Corrosion issues happen over time and can typically be repaired before any of the waste leaks into the atmosphere.
“They have been described as being low-risk,” Jones said. “If the rods were exposed, that could create problems, but there is a very low-probability of anything happening to the casks.”
Should the project go live, there are endless possibilities as far as how many extraneous business the locations could bring along with them.
For instance, universities would likely want to study the waste and its potential uses and research and development industries interested in nuclear waste recycling may line up to conduct their studies as well. It could potentially open a lot of new doors for energy development in the region.
“People are already waiting to flock to the area that is chosen and set up shop,” Jones added.
Ultimately, the decision will not be made by Jones or his business associates. It will first have to receive positive feedback from the residents of whichever area is selected and the state would have to actively apply for grants. Then, the federal government would have the final say.
“It will be up to the Department of Energy,” Jones said.
The next steps would be for the County Commissioner's Court to draft an official resolution reflecting the county's support and stating its commitment to move forward with the exploratory phase of the project.