Myths and Facts
About Ward Valley
(What the opponents
say, and what the facts are.)
will migrate to the groundwater and the Colorado River, and poison
the drinking water of 20 million people.
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.
what if you're wrong, and the waste does migrate? The Colorado River
is only 22 miles away.
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.
using "primitive" dump and cover technology. Waste should be in
lead-lined concrete bunkers above ground so that we can see what's
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.
recently-discovered Beatty, NV tritium leaks prove that all dumps
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
plutonium will be disposed there. With a half life of hundreds of
thousands of years, it will never go away.
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.
from the nuclear power industry will make up 99.9% of the waste.
They are just hiding behind medical waste, cancer patients, academic
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
justice issues must be addressed; the white man is unfairly imposing
this project on poor Native Americans, a minority population.
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.
desert tortoise population will be decimated.
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.
accidents will endanger populations along the routes the waste will
travel to get to Ward Valley.
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.
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.]