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Low-level radioactive waste; States search for disposal sites

The groundbreaking of the nation's first nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Pa., was the media event of 1954. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the nation welcomed the peacetime use of the atom. The decommissioning of the plant in the late 1980s met with less fanfare but reminded the nation that harnessing atomic energy has its price. The radioactive trash produced when generating electricity at nuclear power plants, when mining uranium and when using radio-isotopes for medical research and cancer treatment must be isolated for public safety.

The "hot" wastes from nuclear weapons production, uranium mining, the spent fuel from nuclear power plants and their cores when decommissioned are federal responsibilities. The nuclear industry and other waste producers dump low-level radioactive waste at three privately operated sites in the country. But a law enacted by Congress in 1980 will turn the problem of low-level waste disposal over to all of the states in 1993 when the three sites close their doors to outsiders.

Illinois is among 14 states now trying to find and design a site for low-level wastes, which include the rags, cleaning materials, tools, protective clothing, etc., used in nuclear power plants, and the animal carcasses and other radioactive remnants used in research. Considered less hazardous than high-level radioactive waste, low-level wastes become safe for exposure to humans after 300 to 500 years of storage. A small percentage, however, takes thousands of years to reach safe levels.

Concerns over public safety have slowed efforts here and in other states in determining new sites for the waste by a 1993 deadline set by Congress. Illinois will meet the deadline, says Tom Kerr, former division chief of low-level radioactive waste management for the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety (IDNS). Others disagree. Onlookers do agree that most states do not want to finish first because of the fear that the rules may change, that the first few sites opened will be the only ones to open. "We're way ahead of probably 40 states," says Sen. Jerome Joyce (D-43, Reddick). "We could do it. I just don't want to be first."

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Act passed by Congress in 1980 was the result of a showdown the year before when the governors of South Carolina, Washington and Nevada announced they would no longer take the nation's waste indefinitely. In 1993, the low-level radioactive waste disposal sites in Barnwell, S.C., Beatty, Nev., and Richland, Wash., now taking the nation's wastes, will no longer accept them from areas outside their designated compacts. Under the act, states must establish compacts among themselves and agree on which member state will be the "host" for a waste site. 1993 is the deadline for new sites or plans for storage or disposal; 1996 is the last deadline for sites to be operating. Any state without a site must take possession of the waste upon the generator's request or risk paying damages to the generators for failure to do so.

Among nine compacts and the four states opting to go it alone, 14 states are searching for sites

Kathy Tharp, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Clark County and a staunch opponent of the proposed Illinois site near Martinsville, says: "Illinois is too far ahead of the other compacts in this process. You get the feeling that the other compacts are waiting for this to go on line."

Among nine compacts and the four states opting to go it alone, 14 states are searching for sites (see box). Illinois and Kentucky formed the Central Midwest Compact in 1984 with Illinois agreeing to take Kentucky's waste as long as it is not more than 10 percent of the two states' total.

Illinois has 13 operating nuclear power plants, the most of any state in the nation. From October 1988 to October 1989 they produced 106,410 cubic feet of low-level wastes, ranking Illinois among the top 10 states, according to the U.S. Council of Energy Awareness in Washington, D.C. They also produced most of the waste in Illinois. According to IDNS, in 1988 nuclear power plants generated 83 percent of Illinois low-level

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wastes; medical institutions, hospitals and industry accounted for 9 percent; and fuel cycle generators (relating to mining and refining of nuclear fuel), 8 percent.

While IDNS has identified two potential Illinois sites, one in Wayne County (Geff) and one in Clark County (Martins-ville), the selection process is on hold. Last fall information in geological studies was altered, allegedly by the authorization of IDNS Director Terry Lash. Gov. James R. Thompson appointed former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon to hold public hearings to re-review the suitability of the two proposed sites, and the Illinois Senate Executive Committee is to investigate the allegations against Lash.

Both sites have opposition. Opponents claim they were selected, not for their suitability as disposal sites, but because they are in economically depressed areas where local agreement could come easy. For the Martinsville site, opponents contend there is a threat of contamination to underground water (aquifers). For the Wayne County site, located near the New Madrid fault line, opponents point to aquifers and potential seismic activity based on investigations by independent geologists for the now disbanded citizens' advisory group, the Citizens' Review Committee.

Other states are having difficulty, too. Michigan, the host state of the Midwest Compact, is at war with Ohio officials who oppose the proposed site which is a half mile from the Ohio border and the city of Toledo in Lucas County. The Lucas County prosecutor is seeking an injunction to stop the siting process. Ohio officials claim they did not know the location of the proposed site and fear the possible contamination of nearby water supplies. There is another lawsuit pending in Michigan state court. Michigan opponents claim the site's location on drained wetlands could lead to contamination of well water used by nearby communities.

In Texas, lawsuits have slowed progress in finding a site. The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority (LLRWDA) is deadlocked with El Paso County over a potential site in neighboring Hudspeth County. Filed two years ago by El Paso County commissioners, the suit will come before a Texas district court April 16. The suit claims that the site, located 12 miles from the El Paso county line, is unsuitable because it is on a flood plain. Lee Mathews, general counsel for the Texas LLRWDA, says an El Paso citizens' group has spent about $2 million in legal fees and technical studies since 1986 to block the siting process.

Perhaps the most dramatic opposition has come from New York residents. Protests by the Allegheny County Non-Violent Action Committee have kept the New York Siting Commission from setting foot onto the three potential sites in that county since November, according to New York Assemblyman John Hasper. Opponents claim the siting commission has been deceptive and has lost its credibility. They claim the Genesee River, which flows through Rochester, sits on top of an important aquifer that could be contaminated by the prospective sites that are within a two- to five-mile radius of the river. Experts working for the commission do not consider the underground body of water to be a "principal" aquifer because it is a sandy layer that has not been proven to hold much water, says Jay Dunkleberger, executive director of the New York State Low-Level Radioactive Waste Siting Commission.

Of the 14 states trying to establish a site, California is expected to finish first because there was little opposition to its selected site at Needles in the Mojave Desert.

State compacts for low-level radioactive waste

(No waste sites have been built.)

Appalachian Compact. Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Host state: Pennsylvania.

Central Compact. Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Host state: Nebraska.

Central Midwest Compact. Illinois and Kentucky. Host state: Illinois.

Midwest Compact. Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. Host site: Michigan.

Northeast Compact. Connecticut and New Jersey. Both states will build sites.

Northwest Compact. Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Host state: Washington.

Rocky Mountain Compact. Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. Host state: Colorado. (The Washington state legislature is expected to approve a bill in an upcoming session to allow the Northwest Compact to take Rocky Mountain Compact waste.)

Southeast Compact. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Host site: North Carolina.

Southwest Compact. Arizona, California, North Dakota and South Dakota. Host state: California.

Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Texas are unaffiliated with any compact and each plans to construct its own site. Also unaffiliated are New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont, and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. They seek to contract with or join a compact because each produces so little waste.

Angie Watson

Underlying opposition to the disposal sites is the question whether any state or federal agency has the knowledge or technology to guarantee the public's safety.

Scientific theories on the effects of low-level ionizing radiation on humans are in conflict. Studies released by the National Academy of Sciences in December state that the exposure to low-level radiation is at least three to four times more likely to cause cancer than previously believed. The study included 76,000 survivors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Scientists found that the amount of radiation the bombs emitted was less than originally thought, and that more cancer developed in recent years than had been expected from the lower levels. Dr. Letty Lutzker, president of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, says the report is misleading and is causing unnecessary fear. "Low-level waste isn't very dangerous," she said. Lutzker notes that the study found an unexpected increase of about 5 percent and that the radiation exposure posed by a low-level radioactive waste site would be lower than those recorded in the study.

The precautions taken at a site and the design of a site can contain radiation to maintain public safety, says Kerr of IDNS. The above-ground facility proposed for Illinois would have about a seven-foot covering over its concrete vault. The covering

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would be in layers, for protection and drainage, with earth and liners of clay and a high density polyethylene, according to John Barcalow, section chief for low-level waste external affairs at IDNS. The waste, which would arrive in solid form at the site, would be stored in containers designed to last a minimum of 300 years. Each container would be encased in cement which lasts 500 years before being put in the vault. Chem-Nuclear, a subsidiary of Waste Management, has the contract to operate the facility and monitor it for 10 years after it is closed. The state must then monitor the site for 300 years or more, Kerr says.

Not satisfied by the IDNS guarantees is JoAnna Hoelscher of Citizens for a Better Environment. She and many others question the stability of a man-made structure, especially a concrete facility that must contain the radiation. A November 1989 report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says that concrete has a "service" life of 500 years. Hoelscher refutes that conclusion. "Can we guarantee that some part of the concrete isn't going to crack and there be some leakage?" she asks. "We don't know enough about concrete to know if it'll last 500 years."

Environmentalists point out that it was only 40 years ago that low-level radioactive waste was dumped by the federal government in the ocean or buried in shallow trenches. "Technological arrogance has claimed that everything will be handled," says Dave Kraft, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Information Service in Evanston, a nonprofit organization that researches nuclear power alternatives and hazards. "I know these scientists are people who can only talk in probabilities, but when they go to these communities, they talk in more definite terms than is justifiable." Kraft does not believe low-level waste is "accorded the respect it deserves as a health and safety issue."

Low-level wastes are defined by the process of elimination. Anything that is not high-level waste is low-level, according to the NRC. Low-level waste is divided into three classes: Class A (the lowest). Class B and Class C. Class A makes up about 97 percent of all commercial low-level waste and does not require remote handling. It decays within less than 100 years to levels acceptable to the NRC for safe exposure to humans. Class B and C waste make up the other 3 percent. Some of the Class C waste must be shielded and handled remotely because radioactivity levels tend to be 10 to 100 times higher than in Class B. Nuclear industry experts say that much of Class C waste is metal, which emits little radiation.

Environmentalists argue that Class C does not belong in any low-level waste dumps. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo is testing the argument in a New York lawsuit against the federal government. Diane D'Arrigo, director of the radioactive waste project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C., agrees: "Anything hazardous more than 100 years should be redefined as high-level waste."

While the states grapple with sites for low-level wastes, the federal government has the same problems finding a site for high-level wastes. Meanwhile, high-level wastes are stored on site where they are produced, mainly at the 112 nuclear power plants in the nation. Eight years and $500 million has been spent studying a site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., but Nevada officials question the safety of a site located near a volcano and a fault line.

Distrust of the federal government is at the heart of much of the opposition to low-level sites in the states. "Even if the state does a good job, is the federal government going to make regulation changes that'll upset the whole apple cart?" Kraft asks. Ellen Beal of Don't Waste Michigan is also uneasy. "The trend in the nuclear industry is to deregulate waste . . . . [I]t saves them money. They've got no place to put high-level waste .... If at some date they want the class of waste accepted to include hotter wastes, we're afraid the state wouldn't have a legal right to refuse it."

Extremists among opponents in New York believe the low-level waste should stay on the site where it is created, mainly at nuclear power plant sites. "Let's not open up a new facility that's never been contaminated," says Ted Taylor, a nuclear physicist and member of Concerned Citizens of Allegheny County. Illinois' Sen. Joyce does not think that is the best solution: "This stuff lasts forever. That public utility may begone in 100 years."

More likely to happen is some agreement to establish fewer disposal sites for the low-level wastes. From 1980 to 1988 the national volume of low-level wastes produced by nuclear power plants dropped by 72 percent, according to the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness. The logical question to ask is: Why have more than three sites to replace the three that will close?

To date, the most outspoken opponent of the number of waste sites being planned by the states has been Michigan Gov. James Blanchard. A Democrat, he wrote President Bush in December requesting the president limit the number of sites. Blanchard told Bush that plans to construct 12 to 15 sites is "economically and environmentally irresponsible'' and that the states are "unable to resolve these serious flaws alone.'' Michigan plans to sue the federal government, challenging the number of sites being built and the constitutionality of making the states take title to low-level wastes, according to Chris DeWitt of the Michigan Attorney General's Office.

Once Michigan files its suit, three lawsuits will be challenging the federal government's authority to make states liable for the low-level wastes. New York Gov. Cuomo filed his suit February 21, preceded on February 9 by a federal lawsuit filed by the Concerned Citizens of Nebraska.

Will the pressure of court battles move Congress to amend the 1980 act? Many doubt it, but not Sen. Joyce. He points to the sluggish progress of the host states as proof that they will not meet the 1993 deadline, and that they may seek help from Congress to find a place for their waste. "Probably if 35 or 40 states don't have a place to put their waste, common sense tells you that Congress is going to find a place to put it," Joyce says.

Meanwhile, 36 years after President Eisenhower hailed the groundbreaking of the first nuclear power plant, Illinois and other states are struggling to bury atomic age leftovers. The struggle may not end with the 1993 deadline. Environmental concerns and the fear that Congress will dump the waste on a few states, has site opponents and some proponents pushing for a slowdown in site selection. "The first states to the finish line will undoubtedly end up taking the waste for the whole nation," Beal says. "It behooves any state to slow down."

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