By DAN SHOMON JR.
Nuclear waste site hearings:
In late May former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon will bang his gavel to open public hearings that will determine whether Illinois is close to selecting a site for disposal of low-level nuclear waste. Illinois could be close to concluding its 10-year search for a way to handle its waste by approving a site in the Clark County village of Martinsville in east central Illinois. Or Illinois could have to start all over in selecting a site for the disposal of contaminated waste from Illinois' 13 nuclear power plants and dozens of hospitals.
The three-member Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Disposal Siting Commission chaired by Simon will decide whether Martinsville meets the criteria set by the state for suitable and safe storage of waste. Martinsville residents have voted to accept the waste facility, even though other residents of Clark County do not want it. If the commission rejects the Martinsville site, it would set off a long and costly fight over what to do with the waste, a battle sought by no one in state government or at the state's largest utilities.
Some residents of the area complain the site is unacceptable because there are aquifers underneath it that might be contaminated by the waste. The opponents also say two earthquake faults could cause a major tremor that would dislodge the materials. However, supporters like the Illinois Department of Nuclear Safety think there is little safety risk. "I think the Martinsville site is absolutely safe," says Ed Helminski, a nuclear consultant in Washington, D.C., who helped craft federal nuclear policy while in several government posts and now edits a newsletter on the subject. "Everything has some risk, but you design a system that if something does happen, you can take care of it no matter how small it is."
Illinois has spent years researching low-level waste disposal and has spent more than $20 million to try to find a safe site. The issue of what to do with the low-level nuclear waste jumped into the forefront in 1980 when Congress passed a law making each state responsible for managing the waste and encouraging the states to work together to establish regional facilities.
Illinois has formed its regional compact with Kentucky, and since Illinois has more nuclear power plants than any other state in the nation, it will serve as the host state for the facility. About 94 percent of the low-level waste in the state is made up of items like radioactive clothing and tools from Illinois' 13 nuclear plants, 12 operated by Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison and one run by Illinois Power of Decatur.
The Illinois nuclear safety agency has proposed storing the radioactive items in a facility that would take up about 300 acres near Interstate 70 in Clark County. If built, it will be a single-story, 9,600-square-foot structure with a custom-designed structural steel frame and with pre-cast concrete panels. Inside, low-level radioactive waste shipments will be unloaded, inspected and transferred to overpacks, which are cylindrical concrete blocks that package the waste. The overpacks will be taken to larger disposal vaults.
To make sure none of the waste leaks out, the concrete disposal vaults will be built above grade with a 10-foot earthen cover. Each vault will be about 500 yards long, about 200 yards wide and contain multiple concrete cells where the overpacks will be placed. The vaults will later be walled in with concrete and each cell will be monitored to detect the release of radioactive materials or the intrusion of moisture. State officials say the chambers will also be built to withstand severe tornadoes and earthquakes.
The detailed construction, however, does not appease Bill Wieck, a high school teacher in nearby Marshall who is leading a group called Concerned Citizens of Clark County. Wieck says there are two fault lines nearby, the Wabash Valley and the New Madrid, and he thinks the facility could suffer heavy damage with a major tremor. His group has also hired a geologist, who contends that water located underneath the site presents an environmental risk. The most recent cocern is the discovery that the proposed Martinsville site lies within a flood plain. Opponents say that state rules prohibit disposal sites from being built on a floodplain and that the siting commission plans to consider this argument. "We've proven it was not a technically excellent site as promised to us. Our concern is there are no man-made materials that can be made to contain the site for the life of the radioactivity," Wieck says.
The conflict over Martinsville came to a head in late 1989 when then state Nuclear Safety Director Terry Lash was accused of altering the reports on the Martinsville site to make it look more attractive. He allegedly approved a report in which aquifers were renamed as "water bearing zones" to allay pub-
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lic concerns over the water supply. A few months later, after two state senators asked for his resignation, Lash quit amid reports that he had been fired. He was replaced by Thomas Ortciger.
After Ortciger took office, the General Assembly approved legislation to allow a three-member siting commission to pick the location of the nuclear facility. The move was intended to take the power away from the embattled agency, and Simon was chosen to lead the commission and put the siting process back on track. "Lots of people thought when we had trouble last April, that things weren't going to get back together. They were taking bets on it," Ortciger said. "I think they are a little bit surprised that we have managed to move along."
The hearings are expected to last about a month, and they will be held in Martinsville and the nearby towns of Marshall and Casey. Besides Simon, University of Illinois civil engineering professor William Hall and Sierra Club state field representative Carolyn Raffensperger sit on the siting commission. Simon says only a majority of the three members is needed to decide if the site is acceptable or unsuitable.
Opponents are already angry about the selection process, including the $50,000 Simon made available to opposition groups for legal representation at the hearings. "It seemed to me that unless they were able to have the benefits of counsel and experts, we wouldn't have a real adversarial type of hearing," Simon says. "So in order to get a complete presentation of the pros and cons of the site, I felt these objecting groups ought to have some means of getting financed." Opposition groups, however, say $50,000 is only a small amount compared to the millions of dollars the state has spent on legal and engineeering fees to prepare their case in favor of the site. "Fifty-thousand-dollars is peanuts," says Steve Cloud, a Martinsville resident who has formed an opposition group called Martinsville Against the Dump. "It's simply part of an effort by Justice Simon to legitimize these hearings, but I think these hearings are not legitimate to begin with."
The Concerned Citizens' group will testify at the hearings that the better way to handle the waste would be to make Commonwealth Edison build a temporary storage facility for the radioactive materials at one or all of its 12 nuclear plants in the state. Wieck says state officials then could try to find a technically excellent site and perform more tests on its water supply. "We want a system that would have safeguards," Wieck says.
Ortciger and state nuclear officials say any storage of the waste at Edison's plants would present more problems since many Commonwealth Edison plants in northern Illinois are located near water and would be more dangerous than Martinsville. He also says building more than one repository would make it even harder for the state to monitor the situation.
State officials are working under the assumption that the sparse population around Martinsville makes it a good location. "It makes sense to take these kinds of sites — landfills and low-level wastefills — and move them as remote as possible, so you don't invite those kind of problems in the future, that you don't get a population density that can be bothersome," Ortciger says.
The state has also built several enforcement mechanisms into the system to protect Martinsville area residents, including strict licensing rules, on-site inspectors if the site is built and a tracking system to monitor where all of the low-level radioactive materials in the state are going.
Assuming Martinsville is chosen as suitable, Ortciger thinks the state can have a low-level facility operating by mid to late 1993. The federal deadline for states to have a facility ready to handle its own waste is January 1, 1993, but the deadline could be extended for a few years if Illinois shows a good-faith effort to get the dump completed. Again, assuming the commission accepts the site, the state will move immediately to license Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc. to operate the site. Once a license is issued, it is likely that opponents would appeal the siting commission's decision by filing a motion with one of Illinois' appellate courts.
The state's whole low-level nuclear waste strategy is in jeopardy at these hearings. If Martinsville is rejected or if a legal challenge is successful at stopping the state, Ortciger says it is likely the legislature will have to pass a new law to change the way the state sites low-level waste facilities. Such a development could be disastrous financially because if Illinois misses the 1993 deadline for handling its own low-level waste, the state could face million-dollar penalties. The three current dumps around the nation will no longer be required to accept low-level nuclear waste from other states beginning on January 1, 1993, under federal rules specifying that regional compacts must be responsible for their own waste.
The state's whole low-level nuclear waste strategy is in jeopardy at these hearings
Some Martinsville residents view the proposed nuclear waste site as an economic opportunity. One group contends the area needs the facility to help its sagging economy. Unemployment is at about 12 percent, and the population is declining. Joe Boyer, head of a group called People for Responsible Opportunities, lives less than a mile from the proposed site. He says the 300-400 new jobs that would be created as spinoffs from the facility would be important to east central Illinois' economy. Boyer, who works for the Illinois Department of Conservation, also insists there is no health threat. "When this first started, my wife and I were very ignorant," Boyer says. "We have tried to educate ourselves in this. It can be handled safely if it's done right."
In at least one state, California, officials have picked a location for its waste repository, and the license application is under review. Texas and Nebraska are also close to beginning license review for proposed dump sites. However, Helminski says he thinks people are looking to Illinois to take a leadership role on the issue. The upcoming hearings will be the state's fiercest test of that leadership.
Dan Shomon Jr. is the State Capitol bureau manager for United Press International.
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