Activists Urge Energy Dept. to Give Priority to Radioactive Waste Cleanup


A boy, a retired librarian and three dozen other anti-nuclear activists urged U.S. Department of Energy officials Tuesday to clean up existing radioactive waste at nuclear weapons facilities before they produce more warheads.

The department held a hearing as an initial step in an ambitious three-year study of how it should store, dispose of and clean up the deadly leftovers of nuclear weapons production.

One of 23 scheduled around the country, the hearing is the only one to be held in California, which has 12 sites, the nation’s largest number of suspected contaminated sites covered by the study. Other states, however, such as Washington, Colorado and South Carolina have facilities with potentially greater problems.

Officials at individual facilities “have been doing their own thing without the national perspective,” R. Pat Whitfield, associate director of the department, said before the hearing opened.


Whitfield, who is in charge of restoration of the sites, said the Energy Department is trying to establish a policy for disposing of the world’s most toxic known substances, including plutonium, as well as heavy metals, solvents and other highly poisonous material.

“We’re trying to put that integrated approach together to make it make sense from a national perspective,” Whitfield said.

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins ordered the hearings a year ago in an effort to make the secretive agency more open and environmentally sensitive. Watkins had been pressured by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which had sued to force such a review.

In 1993, the Energy Department plans to complete the study by issuing a preliminary environmental impact statement on the cleanup of problems. The study will cover 77 sites run or funded by the Department of Energy. The department is also studying the future of nuclear weapons facilities. Each site is required to come up with cleanup plans.


Problem facilities in California include the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons research is conducted, and the Sandia lab at Livermore, where weapons are engineered. The General Atomics lab in San Diego and Atomics International in Canoga Park also would be covered by the study.

In holding a hearing in the Bay Area, two Energy Department officials saw why Northern California has earned its reputation for being a bastion of anti-nuclear and pro-peace sentiment.

“The Department of Energy must come to the realization . . . that nuclear waste is irreversible,” said Lillian Nurmela, a retired librarian from Oakland.

“There has been no public consent to radiation exposure,” Alix Stampsli of Oakland said, calling, as did others, for an end to nuclear weapons development and testing.

Urging officials to broaden their perspective, she quoted American Indian lore and told them to “consult not just your physicists but your spiritual leaders” in trying to solve the problems of nuclear waste.

The Energy Department does not hope to complete the cleanup of its sites for at least 30 years, and has estimated the cost at $100 billion, though other experts have placed the price at twice that amount.

The department is spending $900 million this year to control and clean up waste at various plants.

The department estimates that it has 62,250 cubic yards of so-called “transuranic waste,” which is material that will remain radioactive for thousands of years. It has more than 2.7 million cubic yards of low-level waste and creates more than 150,000 cubic yards a year.


After speaking at the hearing, Marylia Kelley, who lives in an apartment next to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, called the process a public relations ploy and said she would give Watkins “an A in rhetoric.”

Energy Department officials also heard from 10-year-old Raymi Dyskant, who could barely see over the podium as he faced the panel.

“I am furious at you for dumping your waste,” he said. “In my house, if someone makes a mess before cleaning up another one, they’re in big trouble.”