How to Site a Nuclear Waste Dump -- for Just $50 Million

1) Ignore scientific consultants. In 1983, The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority hired Los Angeles-based engineering consultants Dames & Moore to conduct a siting study for the proposed facility based on state siting guidelines. After looking at all of Texas, the consultants excluded much of Hudspeth County -- the Authority's current choice for the dump site -- because of tectonic faults, complex geology and poor soil conditions. "Although not excluded," the study noted, "the remainder of the Hudspeth area does not appear to offer good siting potential."

2) Listen to pollsters. A 1984 public-opinion survey commissioned by the Authority noted that "Hispanics are more likely to be undecided than Anglos" on the prospect of a nuclear waste dump in their county (but warned that educating them too much "may simply increase opposition). In Hudspeth, the percentage of Latinos is 2.6 times higher than the state average.

3) Change the rules. Initially, the Authority was mandated to find the "best disposal site" in Texas. It looked at two South Texas counties, Dimmit and McMullen -- where former governor Dolph Briscoe owned land (he urged them to look elsewhere). In 1985, a bill sponsored by Representative Hugo Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, changed that criterion to "a suitable disposal site" and gave preference to available state-owned land, which was almost all in West Texas. In 1991, the Legislature drew a tiny box on the map of Hudspeth County where the dump would go. One problem: There wasn't any suitable state-owned land in the box, so the Authority was granted the power of eminent domain.

4) Choose the site, then do the studies. Without performing a formal land-availability study inside the box, the Authority in 1992 purchased the 16,000-acre Faskin Ranch, 470 acres of which will be used for the dump. State law required the Authority to choose two sites and evaluate their respective socioeconomic, environmental and public health impacts prior to choosing between them. But the Authority didn't begin those studies until after it chose one based on the fact that it had lower bedrock and was closer to utility lines, and thus cheaper to operate.

5) Start small, think big. By the time the Authority's 20-year license, if granted, expires, there won't be any room left in the facility to handle the decommissioning, set to begin in 2027, of Texas's own nuclear plants. So where will that material go? Never fear -- the Faskin Ranch, with its 16,000 acres now leased for cattle grazing, offers plenty of room for expansion. Authority General Manager Rick Jacobi, anxious to downplay the possibility that the dump might increase in size, says, "We would be happy to sell off, contribute or get rid of the excess acreage, if that would make people feel better." Unfortunately, the Authority doesn't have the authority to sell the land.

-- Shaila Dewan


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