03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nukes Mess With Texas

Two days ago, a district court judge upheld the results of a vote six months ago in Andrews County, Texas, about whether to use $75 million dollars in taxpayer bond receipts to construct a low-level nuclear waste dump here. The vote was agonizingly close: 642-639. There were ballot irregularities, but the judge chose to overlook them. But what's really shocking about this story is not this latest step, but the whole rotten, corrupt history of the project from its inception -- and the evidence it presents that the nuclear industry has learned nothing from its sordid past. Nuclear power is far too dangerous (and, arguably, far too important) to be left in the hands of its current custodians -- folks like Harold Simmons, the backer of the Andrews County Nuclear Waste facility to be operated by his company, Waste Control Specialists.

Simmons, a Dallas billionaire, was most prominent recently as the financier of television ads attacking the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama for his alleged connections to former radical William Ayers. Simmons, however, is also a major direct funder of political candidates, including $500,000 to Texas Governor Rick Perry. So it is perhaps not surprising that the state's environmental commissioners, appointed by Perry, gave Simmons the permits he sought to allow his waste site to handle much more dangerous radioactive materials than it was designed for.

But when Simmons earlier went to the Texas legislature he ran into opposition -- a lot of it -- from Republican legislators. He responded in a classic Harold Simmons fashion. He threw his weight around. In fact, he ended up being charged with offering a $60,000 bribe to Rep. Robert Talton, one of the Republican legislators who stood in his way. Talton turned him into the District Attorney, and the bill was killed -- only to be resurrected and passed later on. Overall, Simmons has spent $150 million to grease this deal.

Simmons wants to make Texas the dumping ground for as much of America's nuclear waste as he can. The site he has chosen sits on top of America's biggest and agriculturally most critical aquifer, the Ogallala. The site has not been properly analyzed for whether or not it can safely store any kind of radioactive waste, much less the huge volumes of enormously toxic stuff Simmons wants to import. An interoffice memorandum submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in August 2007 concludes that "Groundwater is likely to intrude into the proposed disposal units ... the Applicant has failed to use numerical modeling to predict the future location of one water table that is expected to intrude into radioactive waste .... the Applicant has not demonstrated that the site is suitable for near surface disposal of radioactive waste." But Glenn Shankle, the executive director of the Commission, overruled his technical staff.

It appears that the other commissioners may not have known of the staff's findings. Three staff members resigned in protest of the decision to recommend the license. In the middle of 2008, Glenn Shankle stepped down from his post, having made sure that the Commission was poised to approve the license for Waste Control Specialists. Six months later he signed on as a lobbyist with the company. One of the staff who had resigned commented of this journey, "Even the mafia was more circumspect."

So we have a major nuclear-waste-disposal facility, recklessly located on top of one of America's premier sources of groundwater, authorized after a tainted legislative process involving attempted bribery, licensed by a regulatory body whose technical staff strongly opposed the permit, under the influence of a governor who is deeply financially compromised, at the direction of a CEO who subsequently took a lucrative position with the applicant.

And we think this industry is ready for a major revival?