Andrews County, Texas • All you can see from the bottom of the massive pit is sky big, blue desert sky. Concrete and plastic sheets blanket its squared sides, and a gravel road slopes up one wall to the red clay rim.
Though its shape is strangely precise, most people call this a dump. And someday the army of trucks that now scurries around its perimeter will fill it neatly with containers of radioactive waste from around the country.
The fact that Texas-based Waste Control Specialists (WCS) was able to create this site is an oddity itself, even historic, given the industry waste wars waged behind the scenes and the policy fights played out in public. Its impacts are already being felt nationally and in Utah.
Waste producers finally have a place to safely dispose of radioactive materials they've been sitting on for years. And the pressure on Utah to open up EnergySolutions to hotter materials than are now accepted has likely eased. But the relationship between the two companies is a complicated one that, after a long history of acrimony, now appears to have settled into one of an alliance of necessity.
"It is a huge accomplishment nationally to have a new low-level waste site," said Leonard Slosky, who oversees a waste-management group based in Denver. "Utah is no longer the sole focus of the waste universe."
Ground zero for waste • Until the Texas site opened this summer, just four U.S. disposal sites were designated for low-level radioactive material or "radwaste" which is distinct from the high-level byproducts of atomic weapon-making and nuclear reactors that remain lethally radioactive for thousands of years. One site, in Nevada, closed 20 years ago. Two one in Washington state and one in South Carolina are strictly limited to taking waste from just 14 states. That leaves EnergySolutions' mile-square site in Clive, Tooele County, to serve the bulk of the nation's disposal needs. And it has. Nearly 97 percent of all radwaste shipped to commercial disposal in the past 20 years has wound up at the EnergySolutions site 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Roughly three dozen states had no practical alternatives for the radioactive discards from hospitals, universities, government cleanups and industrial plants, including everything but the fuel rods from nuclear reactors.
But Utah has borne the burden of being ground zero for radwaste uneasily. Since it opened more than two decades ago, pressure to expand the Utah site has been constant.
The site's past and present owners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on campaigns and on lobbying lawmakers in Congress and the state Legislature trying to win approval for expanding the site and for taking more and sometimes hotter types of waste.
Originally called Envirocare of Utah, EnergySolutions Inc.'s lobbying team has included three former speakers of the state House of Representatives, one of whom is current U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop. One example of the company's political might: Armed with a multimillion-dollar opposition campaign, it defeated a 2001 ballot initiative to limit the disposal site's size and hazard level of waste and to increase its taxes.
Meanwhile, Utah residents and key politicians have fought expansion efforts, with former Govs. Jon Huntsman and Olene Walker reining in the company's major growth initiatives.
'Dumping ground' • "The people of Utah don't want the [EnergySolutions] site to be the nation's dumping ground," said Matt Pacenza, policy director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, an ardent critic of the company.
"The fact that there is another facility that can take some of that burden is a step in the right direction," he said of the Texas site. "It's good for the people of Utah not to routinely have a greater and hotter and larger dump site that ends up being the dump site for the whole country."
The new Texas site is the nation's first radwaste facility created under a 1982 law intended to spread the disposal burden. It accepts waste from 38 states many of them with nuclear power plants and no other disposal site, and many of them also Utah customers.
The $500 million, 15,000-acre site is really a network of specialized cells massive bowls carved 100 feet deep into the vast, flat West Texas desert.
Dug out of hard-packed red clay, the disposal pits are swathed in steel-reinforced concrete and lined with heavy-duty plastic. And, in contrast to the Utah site where contaminated dirt and debris are set directly into cells at ground level, the waste in Texas goes into containers buried with uncontaminated dirt below ground.
"It's very protective of the public," said Rodney Baltzer, president of WCS.
But the Texas site's most important feature is something you can't see.
It is the only one engineered and built to contain the full range of low-level radioactive waste classes A, B and C. By contrast, EnergySolutions can accept only lower-hazard class A waste, since lawmakers banned class B and C wastes from Utah in 2005.
This ability for WCS to take higher-hazard radwaste from much of the nation has big implications, both for the nuclear industry and for Utah.
One reason is that, as the burial ground for most radwaste, owners of the Utah site had a lot of market power because they could say, in effect, that companies needing access to the disposal site had to use all of EnergySolutions' services, including cleanup and shipping. Five years ago, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission looked into "the nature of [EnergySolutions'] structure and the contract arrangements" but never pursued antitrust charges. With the Texas site, waste producers now have another option.
Nuclear options • "It's extremely important from a national waste perspective," said Joe DiCamillo, counsel for the U.S. arm of the Swedish company Studsvik AB.
Studsvik manages radwaste from producers nationwide, many of whom were stuck sitting on containers for years with nowhere to send them. Now Studsvik relies on the Texas site for class B and C radwaste and EnergySolutions for class A.
"We need Clive, and we need WCS," he said, adding, it's crucial to have sites like these because the nuclear industry needs disposal in order to continue moving forward.
Utah public policy is also affected by the Texas site because the EnergySolutions site is no longer the default solution to the national radwaste-disposal crunch, according to Ralph Andersen, who is a low-level waste expert for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a Washington-based industry group.
"It alleviated the pressure," said Andersen, "to open up the Utah site to class B and C waste."
As it turns out, the Texas site has already kept hotter waste out of Utah. Some 3,776 canisters of highly concentrated weapons-making waste from Fernald, Ohio, were headed to Utah in 2003 despite their high-hazard level until then-Gov. Olene Walker objected, halting the move. The waste is buried now in a special section of the Texas site.
"These sites can complement each other," said EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker.
And they already have, with WCS agreeing to take B and C waste from EnergySolutions' $1 billion power-plant decommissioning project in Illinois and the Texas company letting its exclusive customers save money by sending their class A waste to Utah.
The industry landscape isn't likely to change much in the future, given what it took for WCS to get its license. Even though Congress set up a system to build new sites during the Reagan administration, the Texas company is the only one to survive running the political and financial gantlet while opposition killed off other proposed sites in Texas, Nebraska and California. It took 15 years and $500 million.
"Because it was a very time-consuming, expensive effort," said Baltzer, the WCS president, "I don't think it will ever be done again."
In his company's case, community support has been solid. Andrews County voters narrowly approved issuing a $75 million bond in 2009 for the project, with the county now enjoying 5 percent of the site's gross profits.
Local leaders are even suing the Sierra Club to stop its criticism and continuing legal fight against the site.
Opponents such as the advocacy group Sustainable Energy and Economic Development continue to raise concerns about the site's potential harm to the groundwater, air and safety of the people who live nearby. The group's executive director, Karen Hadden, recalled recently how high-level fuel rods wound up by mistake in the South Carolina low-level waste site.
"We hope that doesn't happen at this site," she said, "but we are concerned."
Alliance of rivals • Curiously, given their current peaceful coexistence, combat between EnergySolutions and WCS could have derailed the Texas project many times along its way to licensing.
As Slosky, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Low-level Waste Compact, noted, "Behind the scenes, there was an intense competition between the sites."
Charles Judd, who helped build and operate the Utah site when Khosrow Semnani owned it, described "a big rivalry" between the companies.
"It was nasty; it was personal," said Judd. "There were lawsuits over everything."
One was filed by Semnani, who bought land near the WCS site to build an Envirocare of Texas. He accused WCS of defamation.
The Texas company later accused Envirocare of interfering with its licensing efforts in its own $500 million suit.
Even though Semnani sold Envirocare in 2005 and the new owners changed its name to EnergySolutions the next year, the rivalry endured.
When EnergySolutions began to advocate downblending waste, which is a process of mixing higher-hazard waste with lower-hazard waste so it qualifies for disposal in Utah as class A waste, WCS was telling state and federal regulators it was a bad idea. Just last year, Janet Jenson, a Salt Lake City lawyer who represents WCS in Utah, urged the state Radiation Control Board to reject downblending, since a simpler, safer option would soon be available in Texas. "They are better prepared to take it," she said.
The skirmishes continued in Texas, too.
According to a suit by WCS, EnergySolutions hired a Brigham Young University graduate to start an environmental group to fan local and what the Texas company calls unfounded fears about the site's impact on the Ogallala aquifer, which is the drinking water source for eight states. The lawsuit has been settled privately, according to a spokesman for the Texas site.
Walker, the EnergySolutions spokesman, had no comment on the environmental-group suit, and he also dismissed suggestions about a rivalry or competition with WCS.
"We don't see them as competitors," he said. "We view them as a disposal facility for B and C waste. While for class A waste, we're a disposal facility."
Nowadays it seems as though both companies are focused on sheer survival in a world where, thanks to market forces, regulation and national politics there's less radwaste in need of commercial disposal.
Only 1.1 million cubic feet of waste rolled into the Utah landfill in the first half of this year, which contrasts with an average of 9.6 million cubic feet annually over the past two decades. And 26.7 million cubic feet was disposed of in the banner year of 2005.
EnergySolutions cut costs this fall by trimming 265 employees from its worldwide payroll of around 2,200. In Utah, roughly one quarter of its workers up to 75 lost their jobs, leaving around 150 to 160 at a site that used to employ more than twice as many.
A ripple effect left Tooele County to slash its own budgets. It shuttered the economic development office, and more than two dozen lost their jobs, too.
Still, the NEI's Andersen is bullish about the industry, calling the current disposal market "about right" and the future promising. Radwaste from more than 100 nuclear power plants nationwide will someday need decommissioning, he said. "The greatest potential for this market has yet to be realized."