Sacramento Bee, Tuesday, December 16, 1997.

"Say anything" Opponents Switch Tactics

For years, opponents have tried to scare Californians with predictions that"huge amounts of low-level radioactive (LLRW) waste will be buried at Ward Valley" and that it "will be the dumping ground for the nation." These same opponents are now peddling a recent paper by a Professor F. Gregory Hayden of the University of Nebraska claiming that new disposal facilities, including the proposed Ward Valley project, are not needed. Hayden, Nebraska's representative to the Central Interstate Compact Commission and opposed to placing a site in his state, asserts conveniently that because the volumes of LLRW produced by medical centers, universities, nuclear power plants and industries have declined since Congress enacted the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act in 1980, development of new regional disposal facilities, as called for by the Act, is no longer necessary or economical. Hayden is wrong.
Ignoring both the provisions and purposes of the 1980 Act, Hayden leaps to conclusions that will please only politicians opposed to development of new disposal facilities in their states, such as Nebraska's Gov. Benjamin Nelson, and anti-nuclear activists who have vowed to obstruct the development of any new disposal facilities as long as society uses radioactive materials. The 1980 law is about regional equity and environmental justice of disposal responsibility among the states. It is not about economics, or fears that existing disposal facilities might fill up soon, or expectations of increased waste volumes. In 1979, the governors of Washington, Nevada and South Carolina threatened to close their low-level waste disposal facilities (the only three in the U.S. for commercial waste) unless Congress developed an equitable system for sharing disposal responsibility. Congress responded by authorizing the states to form interstate compacts, each with a disposal facility to be utilized only by states within the compact region. California is the first "host state" of the Southwestern Compact (California, Arizona, North and South Dakota), ratified by the Legislature and approved by Congress.
Hayden mistakenly believes that states with existing disposal facilities will continue accepting the nation's low-level waste as long as they have room. He ignores the political realities not taught in Economics 101. The Washington State disposal facility will not accept California's LLRW. Since 1993, use of that facility has been restricted to the eleven states of the Northwest and Rocky Mountain Compacts, which combined to improve economics. The South Carolina facility accepts our LLRW now, but for 12 months in 1994 and 1995, South Carolina restricted access to the eight states of the Southeast Compact. Then a new governor was elected, the politics changed, and South Carolina dropped its restrictions. Another governor could change the politics again. Nevada closed its facility in 1993. (A facility in Utah is licensed to dispose of only the least active subset of LLRW, and even this limited operation is under state and federal investigations.) If there is "excess disposal capacity," as Hayden claims, it's not available to California or to many other states.
Hayden is also wrong when he says no California corporations or institutions are storing radioactive wastes at their own locations. They are. Many medical facilities, universities and industries are unwilling to send their LLRW to the South Carolina disposal facility because of its past environmental problems. Last year, the presidents of the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, the University of California, and the University of Southern California wrote to the California Congressional delegation endorsing legislation to transfer federal land in the Mojave Desert's Ward Valley to California's Department of Health Services, which issued a license to construct and operate the facility in 1993: "As long as Ward Valley transfer remains delayed and the waste accumulates, LLRW must be stored where it is generated on our campuses. . . . Already, this situation has led some researchers to curtail their use of radioisotopes, thereby diminishing the rate of progress in understanding and fighting some of the most serious diseases."
California should hold the course charted by Congress. The Clinton administration should cease its obstruction. Ward Valley offers assured, safe, and monitored disposal of low-level wastes for California's high-tech industries and scientific and medical research institutions that use radioactivity. They cannot afford to be at the mercy of shifting political winds in two or three states with disposal sites. That's why California needs Ward Valley.
Alan Pasternak, Ph.D. is Technical Director of Cal Rad Forum, an association of corporations and institutions that use radioactive materials. The group's Web site is <www.calradforum.org>