Andrews, a town of 13,000 in western Texas, is a picture of what America's energy future could look like: It is built off the oil, natural gas, and nuclear energy industries, all of which have helped the town stay afloat in the recession and avoid high unemployment rates.
"Right now, we're blessed," said Jerry Bevel, who owns a real estate business and a coffee shop in Andrews. However his neighbors, sisters Peggy and Melodye Pryor don't believe Andrews is blessed: They are among the few local opponents to a new low-level nuclear waste facility in the county. Backed by environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the sisters have filed lawsuit after lawsuit to block the dumping of radioactive waste, which they are worried will contaminate the water supply. Bevel and local officials in Andrews, however, believe that nuclear energy is a part of the country's future, and that Andrews could be an important piece in the puzzle.
President Obama has said that he would like to see more nuclear power plants in the country, and has provided $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the first new U.S. plant in almost 30 years. But since the oil spill the president hasn't mentioned nuclear power-even as he has plugged wind and solar power in his June Oval Office speech.
"Wind and solar are not going to make us energy independent," said Jack Spencer, an energy expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Nuclear energy may be on the up and up, but its waste, which remains radioactive for thousands of generations, has no home. The president cut funds to Yucca Mountain, Nev., effectively shutting down the United States' one site that would be capable of handling high-grade nuclear waste.
"You can't say, 'I support nuclear energy but we're going to kill Yucca Mountain,'" Spencer said. Nuclear power plants currently store their radioactive waste in tightly guarded pools on site, which works for now, but won't be sustainable in the long term. U.S. aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines also run off nuclear power, and their high-level waste has to be stored somewhere. At the same time, the White House has already offered to take spent nuclear fuel from other countries like Chile and Canada.
That's the thing with nuclear power: Creating it and disposing of it requires years of planning ahead. Plants take about 10 years to be licensed and built on average.
The Department of Energy has been researching and developing Yucca's ability to store high-grade nuclear waste since 1978, but changing political winds have hampered the construction of the underground site. The president set up a blue-ribbon commission to research alternatives to Yucca, delaying the next steps until the commission releases its findings in 2012.
When Waste Control Specialists, the nuclear waste company, came calling in Andrews, offering jobs and compensation based on waste intake, locals embraced the idea. The low-grade nuclear waste site, now open for business, is situated on 1,340 acres about 35 miles from the small town. Originally the dump site would hold waste from Texas and Vermont, but now it may take waste from 35 other states, pending the approval of a state commission. As Andrews is on the verge of becoming the low-grade nuclear waste site for the country, the project has drawn opposition not only from residents but from state legislators and outside groups.
Bevel considers taking the country's nuclear waste something akin to a patriotic duty. "It's not going to disappear into thin air," he told me. He grew up in oil fields and worked in the natural gas industry and thinks the more forms of energy the country has, the less vulnerable it will be: "Our economy will be more of a constant."
Now 59 percent of Americans support expanding nuclear power, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, up 13 percent from 2001. Top environmentalists are coming out for nuclear energy too-the co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, has described it as the solution to climate change because nuclear plants don't emit any carbon.
The drawbacks to nuclear energy are safety concerns and potential leak problems: The Andrews site sits over an aquifer, so if radioactive material leaked somehow, it could make its way into the water supply.
Safety and public enthusiasm for nuclear power have much improved since the 1979 accident at the Pennsylvania nuclear plant Three Mile Island, where radioactive steam vented. That incident frightened the public about nuclear power, even though studies showed that damage was contained and no one in the surrounding community suffered injury or significant exposure to radiation as a result.
"The radioactive nature of the stuff we work with is the least of our concerns," said Andrew Rice, a radiochemist working on cleaning up radioactive waste at Hanford, a former plutonium reactor in Washington state. "What you worry about is getting electrocuted, falling off something, and breaking your neck. The nice thing about radiation is it tells you where it is. The most dangerous thing you do every day is drive to work."
Still, no new plants were built in the entire country until Southern Company filed for a license in 2006 to build a plant in Georgia. The Obama administration has put up $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for the plant, which is expected to be operational in the next six to seven years. Plants do require billions in capital to build, usually demanding government funding. But other countries are building plants in quantity-China is planning about a hundred over the next 20 years. France draws more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and even exports its electricity.
Some are working to lower the capital costs. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who has poured his wealth into development work through his foundation, says he sees greater benefits in developing cheap nuclear power for the poor than finding a cure for malaria. He has invested millions in a U.S. venture, TerraPower, to develop compact nuclear power reactors that would lower capital costs and run off of depleted nuclear fuel, in effect recycling waste and lowering the demand for uranium enrichment.
For now the waste problem looms large. Few places in the United States share the eagerness found in Andrews for storing radioactive waste, even with the compensation it entails. That's why Andrews may be taking waste from 36 other states.
"There are solutions to the waste problems-the major problems are political, not scientific," said Rice, the radiochemist.
Most of the country isn't famished for cheap power. The Pacific Northwest, where Rice works, has few nuclear power plants and relies on cheap hydroelectric power from dams along the Columbia River and elsewhere. Most of the country's 104 plants are in the East, concentrated around metropolitan areas.
"I thought by now we would have gotten back into the nuclear business," Rice told me. "But America remains capable of providing power for itself. Once we're really hurting for power, you'll hear people saying 'Now why am I against nukes?'"
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