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2008: The Year the Permian Basin Rose to Prominence as a Nuclear Corridor

2008 will be remembered as the year the citizens of Andrews helped make the promise of low-level radioactive waste disposal a reality. Local citizens led the charge that saw Waste Control Specialists receive a final permit to dispose of radioactive byproduct material and a draft permit to open its federal and Texas Compact low-level radioactive waste facilities.

The 10-year-long effort by Andrews and WCS to take a significant step toward diversifying our economy, and providing a state and national solution to a lingering problem, now rests on a final vote by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Jan. 14.

At times, progress has seemed excruciatingly slow. Now an undeniable sense of inevitability fills the air as we are very near the goal we set for ourselves more than a decade ago.

Our journey with WCS began in February 1997 when the company opened its landfill to dispose of toxic and hazardous waste in western Andrews County. It continued in 1999 when WCS began receiving low-level radioactive waste for treatment and storage. But the promise has always been the permanent disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

We moved forward in May when the TCEQ issued WCS a license to dispose of radioactive byproduct material. In August, WCS awarded a three-year, $80 million contract to design and construct new permanent disposal facilities. Very soon the first radioactive byproduct waste should go into the ground for permanent disposal.

Once the last hurdle is cleared - and I hope the TCEQ is ready to issue WCS the final license to dispose of low-level radioactive waste at its Jan.14 meeting – the work that gathered steam throughout 2008 will have reached a milestone.

WCS’ openness has generated widespread and sustained community support for its project throughout the Permian Basin at public briefings and TCEQ meetings.

The work associated with the low-level license is expected to double both the 100 employees and $4.7 million payroll at WCS during the next 18-30 months.

Andrews County and the state of Texas would each receive 5 percent of the gross income WCS earns from the disposal of low-level radioactive waste and byproduct material, meaning millions of dollars annually for the county’s general revenue budget.

WCS’ presence, however, is much farther reaching; paving the way for the Permian Basin to emerge as the nation’s new nuclear corridor.

No sooner had Louisiana Energy Services starting building a $1.5 billion facility in southeastern New Mexico just west of the WCS site to enrich uranium to be used as fuel for nuclear power plants, than it announced it was doubling the size of the facility to meet customer demand, making it a $3 billion investment. When construction is complete in 2014, that single site will meet 50 percent of this country’s enriched uranium needs.

Area leaders and LES officials acknowledge WCS’ conduct – basically doing what it said it would do at every step – created a favorable atmosphere for LES to locate its plant.

And, two county sites in the Permian Basin – Andrews and Lea – are in the running for a $55 million, uranium processing project to be built by International Isotopes. The proximity of LES and WCS make the Permian Basin an attractive site, according to company officials.

All in all, 2008 has been a fruitful, productive year for Andrews County. We enjoyed some of the best oil and gas prices in recent memory, but we all know that industry is susceptible to wild price swings like we are now experiencing. That is why years ago the forward-looking leaders in this county started seeking out additional industries to diversify our economy.

When we look back on 2008, we will mark it as the year diversification matured and the Permian Basin began offering a Texas solution to a national problem as the nuclear corridor of the future.