Monday, July 31, 1989 The WASHINGTON POST
By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Jeff Schmidt, a Sierra Club official in Pennsylvania, got a letter recently from two Nebraska farmers asking for his help in "a long, expensive fight."
Thus was forged another link in the growing chain of Americans who are discovering that nuclear waste is coming soon to a dump near them. And many are organizing to try to fend it off.
Under a federal law passed in 1980 and amended in 1985, 985, the states have until 1993 to take responsibility for their own "low-level" nuclear waste—in effect, all nuclear waste except spent fuel from reactor cores. Low-level waste can be anything from the used clothing of nuclear plant workers to radioisotopes used in medical research to boric acid sludge from the coolant water in nuclear reactors.
Most states, individually or in regional compacts, are engaged in choosing sites where the waste is to be dumped, a politically painful and environmentally delicate process that is stirring strong opposition as it moves from abstraction to reality.
The farmers who wrote to Schmidt are Ed Epley and Roger Williams, residents of the hamlet of Nora, population 27, and co-chairmen of the Nuckolls County chapter of Concerned Citizens of Nebraska.
Their state government formed a regional compact with Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas and Oklahoma to share responsibility for compliance with the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act. The multi-state authority selected Nebraska as the "host" state to receive their waste and hired a contractor to select a site. Nora is one of three reluctant finalists.
"Basically we have to admit that we were apathetic in the beginning," Epley said in a telephone interview. "Then, on the morning of January 18, we woke up to find out that we had been picked. Everyone was in shock. We just feel that big business is coming in here, dictating to us that we will have a dump we don't wish to have."
To combat a $1 million public relations campaign by the interstate compact and the utilities whose waste will be collected, the farmers in Nora have enlisted the aid of Hugh Kaufman, an abrasive environmental activist and former whistle-blower in the Environmental Protection Agency, to help their "Dump the Dump" campaign.
They wrote to Schmidt because he is a member of the citizens' group monitoring the site-selection process in Pennsylvania, which is the 'host" state for a regional group called the Appalachian Compact that includes Maryland, West Virginia and Delaware.
"We produce a lot of radioactive waste here in Pennsylvania," Schmidt said. "We recognize that we have a problems." He said the Sierra Club decided not to oppose the creation of dumps but to participate in the design and siting process to ensure that whatever facility is created will be as safe and leakproof as possible—above ground rather than buried, away from population centers and watersheds and in an area with no mines or oil wells through which the waste might "migrate" to other communities.
"We want to make sure the public is kept informed throughout the process," said Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources. But she acknowledged that an informed public is not necessarily an accepting public, as has been shown in Nebraska and in New York, where residents of 10 communities designated as potential dump sites carried coffins through the streets of Albany in a demonstration in April.
In a nationwide effort to win public acceptance of the state dumping plans, the Energy Department in 1987 gave the League of Women Voters a $274,000 contract to run "information" campaigns about the nature of the material to be dumped and about the site-selection process.
In effect, the League of Women Voters, like some of the more prominent environmental groups, decided that the waste-dumping project was inevitable and that participation, rather than opposition, was the most constructive course of action.
Radioactive waste has been an inevitable and troublesome byproduct of the nuclear age for nearly 40 years. The federal government is still searching for a permanent site for disposing of "high-level" waste, the intensely radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors, and is testing a proposed site at Yucca Mountain, Nev. But Congress handed the low-level waste problem back to the states.
Diane D'Arrigo, a waste specialist for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said most of the waste to be disposed of in the state dumps is CRUD, an acronym for Chalk River Unidentified Deposits, after the Canadian plant where it was first identified. CRUD is essentially radioactive rust from the pipes in nuclear power plants. "Some of this material can kill you," she said.
According to Marvin Resnikoff, research director of the Radioactive Waste Campaign, an anti-dumping group, the United States generates about 80,000 cubic meters of low-level waste each year, and the "hazardous life" of this material ranges from hours to hundreds of thousands of years.
Since the early 1960s, low-level waste has been disposed of by burial at federally licensed, privately operated dumps. At one time, six of these dumps existed, but three were closed when wastes contaminated nearby soil and water. The three that remain are in Barnwell, S.C.; Beatty, Nev.; and Richland, Wash.
Under the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, states no longer will be allowed automatic access to these facilities. Failure to designate a site and dispose of the waste locally will result first in fines and penalties and ultimately in isolation from any access to out-of-state dumps, which would require reactors to be shut down in states with no designated site.
The Washington, D.C., area apparently will escape most of this pain. Maryland's waste will go to Pennsylvania. Virginia, with nuclear power plants at Surry and North Anna, is part of an eight-state Southeast Compact, which will continue to use the Barnwell disposal site. The District generates only a negligible amount of nuclear waste and has attached itself to the Rocky Mountain Compact, which will use the Beatty, Nev., dump.
The six states of the Northwest Compact will continue to use the Washington state site. Thirty-one states and Puerto Rico still must designate sites, either on their own or in regional compacts. New York, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have decided not to join multi-state compacts.