AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Nearly 100,000 tons of nuclear waste are piling up around the country. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The federal government decided decades ago that it made sense to consolidate the waste at one permanent location, but no place seems to want it. So now nuclear regulators are considering proposals for temporary storage. NPR's Nathan Rott checked out one such site in southeast New Mexico.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: When I asked for directions to the proposed interim nuclear storage facility, I got a few answers. The private company that wants to build it sent me GPS coordinates. A mayor in support of the project told me to drive to the county line and look north. Jason Shirley, a city councilman in Carlsbad, told me to drive 35 miles out of town, pull off on a dirt road and from there...
JASON SHIRLEY: Third cactus from the left - I don't know what to tell you, bud (laughter).
ROTT: That, he says, is one of the draws.
SHIRLEY: This is 35 miles in the middle of nowhere.
ROTT: And after a drive, I can confirm.
Yeah, I'd say this is pretty well in the middle of nowhere.
The site in question is off a dirt road and marked by a green sign. It's in the desert, pancake flat with the stubble of shin-high scrub. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a proposal by a private company to build a consolidated interim storage facility here. It could hold tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel brought in from California to New Jersey. John Heaton is a former New Mexico state legislator working to bring the facility here.
JOHN HEATON: A third of the U.S. population is within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant or facility that's been decommissioned.
ROTT: And most of those power plants are by bodies of water - the ocean or rivers - places that are susceptible to flooding or natural disasters. Others are by fault lines.
HEATON: So there are a lot of folks that would like to get this material off their site and somewhere where it's more stable until a repository can be opened.
ROTT: The federal government's inability to find a permanent repository for the nation's nuclear waste has been a long-standing problem and an expensive one. Its preferred site, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, has long been blocked by local opposition. So instead, the government pays utility companies millions of dollars a day - taxpayer money - to continue to store the waste on-site at power plants around the country. A blue-ribbon panel tasked with looking at this problem under the Obama administration suggested temporary consolidated storage. But to avoid another Yucca-like impasse, it suggested taking a, quote, "consent-based approach" when finding a site. And that...
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
ROTT: ...May be hard to get.
ROSE GARDNER: Hey, how are you?
ROTT: Good. How are you?
GARDNER: I'm Rose.
ROTT: Nate. Nice to meet you.
GARDNER: Come on in.
ROTT: Rose Gardner lives in Eunice, N.M., a tiny town about 35 miles from the proposed nuclear storage facility. She's babysitting three energetic grandsons.
It's a microphone.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.
ROTT: Gardner has been outspoken in her opposition to the proposal. She's heard the arguments for it - high-paying job, stable money, a patriotic duty - but she doesn't see why New Mexico, particularly a rural corner of it, should have to take on the nation's nuclear waste.
GARDNER: They claim that it's so harmless. If it's so harmless, then why do these communities that created this waste want to get rid of it?
ROTT: Gardner doesn't believe the waste is safe. She worries about transporting it, storing it. Remote as the site is, she says...
GARDNER: There are people that live out there by that site - not so very far. There's ranchers out there.
ROTT: And oil workers - lots of them. The proposed site is in the Permian Basin, which is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. Tommy Taylor is the director of oil and gas operations for a Texas-based company that has leases near the proposed site.
TOMMY TAYLOR: Don't put this in the middle of an oil field. That's a bad idea - certainly not the biggest oil field the United States has.
ROTT: Proponents for the plan insist that it's safe and aim to convince more people of that. But Taylor and Gardner are clear - they won't give consent to the project and will fight it best they can. The same is true of state leadership. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.
MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: There isn't anyone who can demonstrate to me that there's no risk here. There is risk. We should be clear about that. I don't think it's the right decision for the state.
ROTT: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission hopes to finish its technical review of the proposal by next year. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Carlsbad, N.M. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.