ANDREWS COUNTY, Texas — Nuclear waste has a new home.
A new landfill in West Texas is allowed to accept radioactive waste from 36 other states, and a Dallas billionaire is behind the project.
But opponents worry about the long-term effects of burying low-level radioactive waste in the Lone Star State.
If there's such a thing as a "good" place to build a massive radioactive waste landfill, it might be 30 miles outside of Andrews, Texas.
This comes pretty close to the middle of nowhere.
"It's a very safe facility, and it should last for tens of thousands of years," explained Rod Baltzer, president of Waste Control Specialists.
Opponents of burying nuclear waste in Texas point out that's a long time to keep a promise.
Besides — even the middle of nowhere is someone's backyard. Rose Gardner lives six miles over the border in Eunice, New Mexico.
"I'm here. I'm living here. I'm at ground zero, literally," she said.
The nuclear landfill, under construction, has been in the works for more than 15 years. In January, the Texas commission regulating radioactive material voted to let the site accept low-level waste shipped in from 36 states.
That opens a lucrative market for the $450 million facility, the only one of its kind in the nation. It is owned by Dallas billionaire/philanthropist Harold Simmons.
"It can be done safely," Baltzer said. "We have done it safely and we'll continue to do it safely."
The facility has been controversial from the beginning. Some scientists and some neighbors are concerned that nuclear waste will eventually contaminate a massive underground water aquifer.
"I think it's very dangerous to have nuclear waste buried in the ground, so close to a water body," Gardner said.
The landfill's proximity to the Ogalalla Aquifer has been hotly disputed. Early data indicated the nuclear waste would be buried above the underground water network.
In fact, three scientists at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality resigned, protesting the state's approval of the site.
Baltzer says 300 more test wells have been bored since the scientists left. How does he know there is no aquifer underneath the waste dump?
"We've done borings as deep as 2,000 feet on our site. And they're been as shallow as 50 feet. We've got 560 of those. And we've got a team of geologists that have modeled the data, analyzed it," he said.
Low-level nuclear waste can include contaminated items like:
- gloves and booties used at nuclear plants.
- hospital medical waste
- radioactive materials from university research
"We've got a problem and we have to deal with it," Baltzer said.
"That's the one argument they use over and over," Gardner countered. She believes the kind of waste Baltzer's talking about will be just a small percentage of what's trucked-in across Texas highways.
"But because of the ruling that they have, they're not limiting it to medical waste. It's every decommissioned nuclear plant that comes down," Gardner said. "It's all the crap that comes out of them."
Waste Control says its operation is highly regulated by the state, that trucking nuclear waste has been proven safe, and that the facility is ready for business.
There's very left for the residents in the middle of nowhere to do but hope they are proven wrong.