Picture a football field piled with radioactive gloves, rags, papers, research animal carcasses, bandages, tools, filters and stuff that makes exit signs glow. Then picture it piled 500 feet high.
That’s 22.5-million cubic feet of low-level nuclear waste, all of it generated since 1980 when Congress essentially got out of the radioactive rubbish business and told the states: You make it, you take it.
“Waste is something that’s undesirable or else they would call it gold. It’s an intruder,” said Marvin Resnikoff of the Radioactive Waste Campaign, which opposes the new sites. “People don’t want waste in their back yard.”
Low-level waste is everything that isn’t spent fuel or the leftovers from the making of nuclear bombs.
About 90% of the volume and 97% of the radioactivity comes from power plants and industrial sources. Other stuff comes from research labs, hospitals and medical centers that use radiation as treatment.
Most of the slop becomes innocuous in a short time, but iodine 129 has a half-life of 16 million years, and technetium 99 will lose half its potency in 212,000 years. Other potent elements include cesium 137, strontium 90, cobalt 60 and carbon 14.
The key date in the new national policy is Jan. 1, 1993, when states must take title to their own garbage and the only three commercial repositories will close their gates to states outside their regions.
Congress encouraged states to save money and headaches by banding together in regional compacts. To date, nine compacts including 41 states have been formed. Five states are going it alone and the rest remain unaligned.
May Be Too Many Sites
Experts say 14 new sites are more than are necessary. The cost of building and operating 14 sites for 30 years would be $2.2 billion to $5.4 billion, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report to the Congress last year.
Three or four sites could do the same job, according to the Electric Power Research Institute.
“It’s three times more than enough,” said Ed Helminski, publisher of the Radioactive Exchange, a Washington, D.C., periodical that focuses on nuclear issues.
“It’s politics. Nobody wants nuclear waste,” said Rep. Butler Derrick (D-S.C.), who co-authored the low-level waste laws. “It’s a matter of the states not wanting to act and wanting to dump on someone else.”
Congress got involved in 1980 after the governors of South Carolina, Nevada and Washington said they would close sites in their states. Concerned about poorly packed containers and trucking accidents, they balked at being the nation’s dumping ground.
Three other sites closed by 1978 and have since leaked radiation. They are at Maxey Flats, Ky.; Sheffield, Ill., and West Valley, N.Y., which environmentalists called “kick and roll” dumps because drums were kicked off a truck, rolled into a ditch and covered with dirt.
In the past, all wastes were buried. But because of leaks, 11 of the 14 new repositories will limit or ban burial. They will shield wastes in concrete burial vaults or above-ground clusters that will be mounded with layers of dirt.
“There were some problems with past practice,” said Steve Romano of US Ecology Inc., which buried wastes in Illinois and Kentucky. “Cardboard boxes and crates were thrown haphazardly into a trench. Let’s move on from that and prevent it from happening again.”
Annual waste generation hit a peak of 3.77-million cubic feet in 1980, fell to 2.7-million cubic feet in 1985 and dipped to 1.43-million cubic feet last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It has to go somewhere. We can’t drown in our own waste,” said Douglas Eldridge, general counsel of the New York Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility Siting Commission.
Not counting transportation, states pay about $50 per cubic foot of waste. That price will rise to $100 to $300 per cubic foot, according to Brian Farrell, program manager on low-level wastes for the Edison Electric Institute.
Some fear that high costs could encourage illegal dumping.
“It’s desirable to keep generating costs low enough to provide significant incentive against midnight dumping,” said Malcolm Knapp of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Even if the high-tech graveyards improve safety, danger won’t be altogether eliminated, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which projects an additional 4.4 fatal cancers over 10,000 years for each low-level waste site of 250,000 cubic meters. There are 500,000 annual cancer deaths from normal causes.
To keep exposures low, sites limit the amount of the hottest material they take in.
A fence to keep out intruders for 100 years is required at each site, and the most-contaminated wastes must either be buried deeper or shielded with concrete for 500 years. By then, the radioactivity should pose no health risk, although no one is sure if concrete will keep its integrity that long.
“There are parts that can kill you if you’re exposed to them,” said Diane D’Arrigo of Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “If we’re going to produce waste, we should be responsible to future generations who are going to suffer the consequences.”
Tar and Feathers
Opponents of nuclear dumps are so upset they have brought buckets of tar and feathers to town meetings and created uproars.
“Michigan is like a sponge sitting in a bathtub. We’re surrounded by 95% of the fresh surface water supply in the country,” said Ellen Beal of Don’t Waste Michigan. “Who would think of something so stupid as to put a nuclear dump here?”
Jeff Dewan, a guitarist and carpenter in Hays, Kan., wrote “Talkin’ Rad Waste Blues” that’s a hit song among nuclear foes in Kansas and Nebraska. Some lyrics:
I said, say, mister, where you from?
You must think I’m pretty dumb.
That stuff you’re peddlin’s nuclear trash.
And we don’t want your cold, hard cash.
To make a repository more acceptable, Nebraska and Illinois will offer $1 million a year to the town that takes it. Pennsylvania also plans payments so the host town can attract other industries, which critics say amounts to a bribe.
“It’s not a bribe,” said James Neal of US Ecology, the company hired to select a site in Nebraska. “It’s an incentive like a tax break, free land or free services.”
The state making the most headway is California, where a repository may be open in 1991 in the Mojave Desert.
The area gets 6 inches of rain a year and the ground water is 700 feet below the surface. It’s so dry, tracks remain from armor training during World War II.
Fences are needed to keep out the desert tortoise, but for the most part, the repository is accepted because it will bring 15 to 20 jobs.