Myths and Facts About Ward Valley

(What the opponents say, and what the facts are.)
Myth: Waste will migrate to the groundwater and the Colorado River, and poison the drinking water of 20 million people.
Fact: The National Academy of Sciences, one of the nation's most respected independent scientific bodies, studied this issue at the request of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Their conclusion: There is no credible scenario under which the Ward Valley site will harm the Colorado River or any other aquifer. The NAS report confirmed the conclusions reached by the California Department of Health Services in reviewing the license application, and by expert, independent scientists who also reviewed this issue and advised the Department.

Myth: But what if you're wrong, and the waste does migrate? The Colorado River is only 22 miles away.
Fact: Extensive environmental monitoring systems are included in the facility design, so any waste movement would be detected immediately and corrective actions could be taken long before the waste could reach the groundwater more than 600 feet below or move off-site. Scientists at the USGS estimate that groundwater in Ward Valley moves at a very slow rate—only a few centimeters per year—meaning that any groundwater underneath the site would require many thousands of years to travel to the Colorado River, even if it moved in that direction. And remember, none of the waste will be hazardous after 500 years. The fact is, the groundwater moves south, toward Danby Dry Lake, not east toward the Colorado River.

Myth: You're using "primitive" dump and cover technology. Waste should be in lead-lined concrete bunkers above ground so that we can see what's going on.
Fact: Near-surface burial is the ideal technology to use in an arid desert environment. This is the conclusion reached by the California Department of Health Services, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration. Using the stable, enduring properties of the earth itself is the best way to isolate the waste until the radioactivity naturally becomes non-hazardous, a maximum of 500 years. (Nearly all the waste reaches non-hazardous levels in about 100 years, but a very small percentage will remain hazardous for 300 - 500 years.) On the other hand, above-ground structures are subject to damage by earthquakes and other natural disasters, vandalism, possible terrorist attacks, etc.

Myth: The recently-discovered Beatty, NV tritium leaks prove that all dumps leak.
Fact: The California Department of Health Services reviewed the Beatty data published by the U.S. Geological Survey late in 1995, and came to the conclusion that the data have no relevance to the Ward Valley disposal facility, primarily because of modern regulatory requirements and the differing disposal practices permitted under today's more stringent regulations. (The USGS reported finding trace amounts of tritium and carbon-14 in soil gas samples taken at the closed Beatty site.) The DHS review concluded that the Beatty migration came about because large volumes of liquid waste were disposed directly into the soil without solidification, and the trenches were allowed to remain open for long periods without protection from rainfall. By contrast, no liquid waste will be disposed at the Ward Valley site, only small sections of the disposal cells will be open at one time, a daily cover of soil will be placed on the waste to mimimize the intrusion of rainfall, and other design and operating practices will assure that the waste will not migrate. And finally, the USGS released a second Beatty report on May 30, 1997, that confirmed its earlier conclusions: Water in the soil moves up, not down, and the Beatty data are not useful for drawing conclusions about Ward Valley.

Myth: Even municipal garbage dumps have to be lined with plastic—LLRW is much more dangerous, so it makes sense that the Ward Valley trenches should at least be lined with plastic.
Fact: Plastic liners were considered during the design phase of the facility. However, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency both recommended against plastic liners. The reason: In an arid environment, any rain falling into the trenches will penetrate the surface only a few meters—about 30 feet—and then will quickly and naturally be carried back to the surface by evaporation and transpiration by plants. (Ward Valley receives less than 5 inches of rain annually, and has an evapotranspiration rate potential of more than 130 inches a year.) This minimizes the opportunity for any liquid to come in contact with the waste. However, if the trenches are lined with plastic, it is highly likely that rainfall would become trapped underneath the disposal units as it tries to move back toward the surface. So plastic liners would only complicate the natural processes that minimize the opportunity for water to be in contact with the waste. And remember, no liquid waste will be disposed of at Ward Valley. Liquid waste must be solidified at the generator's site, i.e., mixed in concrete, before it can be brought to the site.

Myth: US Ecology (the licensee) will try to sneak in high-level waste, chopped-up nuclear fuel rods, hazardous waste, etc. It will be a public health and environmental disaster.
Fact: The operations of the facility will be under the watchful eye of the California Department of Health Services, which will have an on-site state inspector present at all times. The classes of waste that can be disposed of at Ward Valley is narrowly defined by both state and federal regulations, and no high level waste or hazardous waste will be permitted. High level waste and spent fuel rods are the responsibility of the federal government and cannot be disposed of in a commercial low-level waste facility; it's against the law.

Myth: Deadly plutonium will be disposed there. With a half life of hundreds of thousands of years, it will never go away.
Fact: Trace amounts of plutonium will be included in some of the waste, as permitted under stringent regulations designed to protect the public health and safety. License conditions place specific limits on the total amount of plutonium that can be accepted over the 30-year life of the facility. That limit is 10 curies, and realistically, less than half that amount can be expected to be disposed of at Ward Valley.

Myth: Waste from the nuclear power industry will make up 99.9% of the waste. They are just hiding behind medical waste, cancer patients, academic research.
Fact: That's not true. In the Southwest Compact region, actual shipping records for the period 1988-1992 prove that utility waste (i.e., nuclear power plant waste) made up 43.4% (by volume), and 27.6% (by activity) of the waste shipped to commercial LLRW disposal facilities. The balance —by far the majority of the waste generated—came from academic institutions, medical facilities, research hospitals, biotechnology companies, and state and local governments.

Myth: Let's not rush to judgement on Ward Valley which many scientists say is not safe and which even the Clinton Administration opposes. Let's examine other options—different technologies, different locations, etc.
Fact: The Ward Valley site was selected after an exhaustive state-wide search conducted with many opportunities for public input, and after extensive physical, environmental and cultural studies of the site had been conducted. It meets all of the safety criteria established by the State of California and by the federal government. The license issued by the State has been upheld by the California Supreme Court, which rejected all of the opponents' arguments against the site as being without merit. Mainstream scientists such as the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and independent experts who reviewed the project for the California Department of Health Services have concluded that the facility does not represent any realistic threat to public health and safety or to the environment. Opposition within the Clinton Administration is in response to political pressure brought by a small, vocal constituency including some well-known Hollywood stars who contribute to political causes. Any attempt to materially change the facility design or location would invalidate the current license and throw the licensing process back to square one, beginning another phase of a never-ending cycle. And that is the goal of Ward Valley opponents.

Myth: Pete Wilson and US Ecology are trying to force the federal government to give them the Ward Valley land without any safeguards. By objecting to the assurances that the Department of Interior is demanding, they are just proving they have something to hide.
Fact: The State's efforts to obtain the Ward Valley land through congressional action and/or through an action of the federal district court are intended to overcome political obstacles within the Clinton Administration. In either case, all existing environmental and safety regulations would remain in full force, including those contained in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and California's even more stringent Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In addition, the State has included 131 site-specific license conditions that go beyond NEPA and CEQA to ensure that the Ward Valley facility does not harm people or the environment.

Myth: Sacred Native American lands are going to be polluted; Native Americans perform rituals and collect plants at the site. Native Americans were not consulted on the project.
Fact: This is false. The rights of all groups and individuals have been respected throughout the lengthy licensing process, as they should be. A 100% archaeological survey performed by UC-Riverside's highly respected Archaeological Research Unit (with Mojave Indian observer Weldon Johnson) disclosed no significant cultural resources. Ceremonies have only been performed there since the disposal site was proposed, as part of project protests. The Fort Mojave Reservation appointed a representative (Elda Butler) to the Local Citizens Committee convened by the League of Women Voters to evaluate the site. No Native American claims were made during the meetings of the committee during the several years the committee actively sought public input. Plants at the site are not unique; they can be gathered anywhere in the 1,000 square mile valley.

Myth: Environmental justice issues must be addressed; the white man is unfairly imposing this project on poor Native Americans, a minority population.
Fact: The U.S. EPA's environmental justice model yields a score of "0" for Ward Valley since it is unpopulated. People in Needles (20 miles distant, across a mountain range) are not at risk. Moreover, Needles' population is predominantly white. The true environmental justice issue is storage of the waste in 800 urban neighborhoods, many with substantial minority populations, while the Clinton Administration blocks development of the Ward Valley disposal facility.

Myth: The desert tortoise population will be decimated.
Fact: That is not true. In fact, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has issued two biological opinions on the potential impact the Ward Valley disposal facility will have on the desert tortoise (1990, 1995), and in both cases concluded that the species will actually benefit from development of the site. That is because the developer will install tortoise-proof fencing along both sides of Interstate 40 which bisects the tortoise habitat, channeling the tortoises through culverts that go underneath the freeway. At present, lacking such fencing, many tortoises are killed as they attempt to cross the freeway. The fencing will provide safe access to the tortoises' historically larger breeding range on both sides of the freeway and improve reproductive results for the Ward Valley gene pool. Many safeguards are also in place to prevent natural predators from killing baby tortoises and to make sure daily operations of the site do not have a negative impact on the species.

Myth: Transportation accidents will endanger populations along the routes the waste will travel to get to Ward Valley.
Fact: Transportation risks will actually be reduced, because the waste will not have to travel to facilities in other states. Those risks are minimal, in any event, in fact, the transportation of LLRW has a perfect safety record: No member of the public has ever been hurt by transportation activities. It is estimated that less than five trucks per week will travel to the site.

[This information has been prepared by Nicki Hobson, co-author of Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal: The California Story , published by the University of California, Irvine, to assist in the discussion of important issues related to the Ward Valley Low-level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site. She can be reached by phone at (760) 598-8289, or by Fax: (760) 598-7304.]