Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who has cast himself as a staunch environmentalist concerned about contamination of the planet, earned as much as $20,000 a year serving on the board of California's largest producer of low-level radioactive waste.
The Costa Mesa company, ICN Biomedicals Inc., currently disposes of its waste at a licensed dump in Washington state.
But the company is slated to become one of the biggest contributors to California's first in-state low-level nuclear waste dump, proposed for construction in the Mojave Desert near Needles.
The proposed dump is controversial, with environmental groups and neighbors contending that it could leak and contaminate ground water and the Colorado River.
Until Brown resigned the post in mid-December, prior to beginning his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the former California governor had served since 1987 as one of a handful of directors overseeing ICN Biomedicals.
The company uses radioactive materials to develop products employed by medical researchers in the fights against AIDS, cancer and other deadly diseases.
The principal radioactive waste generated by ICN is tritium, a form of hydrogen that in small quantities is relatively benign, according to experts. Tritium is such a low emitter of radioactivity that its harmful effects usually can be blocked with a piece of paper.
However, if large amounts of the substance are ingested or absorbed through the skin, tritium radiation can be fatal.
The proposed low-level nuclear waste site in California's Ward Valley is under attack by environmentalists, some local officials in the desert region, celebrities and several state officials, including Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy and state Controller Gray Davis, all of whom are concerned about what could happen if the dump contaminated ground water.
Brown appeared puzzled when asked if he had been aware of the magnitude of ICN's low-level radioactive waste production.
"Nobody ever complained to me, nobody has ever brought it up. Nobody has ever complained that there was a problem," he said in an interview. "I don't know anything about Ward Valley." If local residents oppose the dump, Brown said, he would be sympathetic to their concerns.
A former ICN Biomedicals board member who served with Brown in the late 1980s said, like Brown, he did not recall any discussion of the company's production of low-level nuclear wastes or the Ward Valley dump at any board meeting.
"I don't remember at all that this was ever discussed in my presence, and I attended every meeting." said Dr. Roger Guillemin, a neuroendocrinologist associated with the Whittier Institute in La Jolla.
Several business experts said it is the duty of so-called "outside" board members such as Brown to take an active role in questioning the policies and practices of the companies they direct. But they also cautioned that board members are heavily dependent on management for information about company activities.
"There is a new, specific concern about the environmental laws and the liability of directors," said Murray L. Weidenbaum, director of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis. "And there are growing reasons for board members to be taking a more active role in the subject. (Yet), in a sense you're at the mercy of management."
In his campaign for the presidency, Brown has repeatedly asserted that environmental issues are the most serious matter that faces the electorate.
"In the presidential year when the polls tell us it's 'jobs, jobs, jobs,' we have to keep reaffirming the fundamental belief that 'jobs, jobs, jobs' depend on the environment, environment, environment," Brown said in February.
On another occasion, he complained: "We're turning this planet into a stinking junkyard."
Primarily because he agrees with environmentalists who believe there is no safe way to dispose of the highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, Brown--in his campaign platform--has called for phasing out all such plants within 10 years.
While there is a vast difference in the potency and potential danger of the uranium fuel used to power nuclear reactors and the radioactive isotopes used in pharmaceutical manufacturing, environmental groups contend that the uncertainties surrounding the long-term disposal of both substances pose vexing problems.
The controversy over the disposal of low-level nuclear wastes has grown more heated in recent years, as state governments face impending federal deadlines to build their own facilities to permanently dispose of such refuse produced within their borders.
Typically, such low-level wastes include protective clothing and tools used at nuclear power plants and biomedical research facilities; glassware, syringes and other medical paraphernalia; animal carcasses used in research and the byproducts of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes. It does not include highly radioactive wastes, such as spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors.
Production of radioactive waste generally is measured in "curies," a gauge of radiation rather than weight or volume. According to experts, a typical commercial nuclear reactor annually produces about 130 million curies of waste.
From January, 1988, to September, 1991, ICN Biomedicals--the only company Brown has helped direct since stepping down as governor in 1982--generated 15,298 curies of radioactive waste, according to company records. All but 233 of those curies were in the form of tritium waste products.
On that basis, ICN Biomedicals each year has, with rare exceptions, consistently ranked as the No. 1 producer of low-level nuclear waste in California, according to a state-commissioned study.
ICN Biomedicals is also the largest low-level radioactive waste producer in the Southwest Compact, a four-state unit created under provisions of the federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, according to the state-commissioned study. Members of the compact are California, Nevada, North Dakota and South Dakota. To comply with the act, the Southwest Compact is pushing to build a low-level nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, near Needles.
California Gov. Pete Wilson's Administration last week bowed to pressure from state Senate Democrats and agreed to hold a quasi-judicial hearing on the Ward Valley dump in exchange for Senate confirmation of Russell Gould, Wilson's nominee to head the state Health and Welfare Agency. The hearing could delay the dump's opening by at least a year.
Environmentalists contend that the radioactive waste--particularly that generated by ICN and others in processes employing tritium gas--could conceivably find its way to the nearby Colorado River. Most tritium-related waste is in liquid form, stored in stainless steel canisters that are then encased in concrete and other materials. At the proposed Ward Valley site, the so-called "high-integrity containers" would be buried in unlined pits.
Steve Romano, vice president and manager of California operations for American Ecology, parent company of the firm chosen to build the proposed facility, said: "The chance of the Colorado (River) being contaminated, there's no more chance of that happening than of us polluting the moon. . . . Even if anything reached ground water, which we don't think it will, it would take tens of thousands of years . . . to reach the end of Ward Valley."
Tritium has a half-life of 12 years, meaning that every 12 years, it loses half of its radioactivity.
Romano said that with one exception, all the members of an independent technical committee convened by the California Department of Health Services to evaluate the Ward Valley license application said risk to the environment from the dump would be minimal.
Several independent scientists--including one who serves on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's nuclear waste advisory committee--told The Times that low-level wastes do not pose serious health or environmental risks if they are properly packaged, buried and monitored.
However, prudence and caution have not always been the rule, according to state officials and documents prepared for the NRC.
For example, a 1991 study of a low-level waste dump operated near Sheffield, Ill., between 1967 and 1978 found that tritium and other radioisotopes have migrated into ground water near the site. Another study concluded that Carbon-14, another radioisotope, is likely to leach into ground water below a low-level dump near West Valley, N.Y., that operated between 1963 and 1975.
And there have been problems with at least two of the three existing low-level waste disposal facilities.
In the early 1980s, at a site in Nevada, "it seemed like people bringing the waste there weren't being careful about the packaging, and we had leaking packaging. And a truck full of (radioactive) waste caught fire out at the site," said John Vaden, low-level waste project manager for the Nevada Divison of Health. However, Vaden said, those problems appear to have been solved in recent years.
In South Carolina, officials have discovered that small amounts of tritium have migrated from burial trenches into the rest of the waste site property, said Virgil Autry, director of the state Division of Radioactive Materials. However, Autry characterized the problem as minor.
At Ward Valley, "there are several concerns that we have," said Michael Paparian, state director of the Sierra Club in California, which currently opposes licensing of the disposal facility. One of the group's concerns involves provisions made to contain and monitor the wastes. Another is the large volume of tritium waste produced by the pharmaceutical manufacturers.
"There are some efficiencies to be gained in the industry," Paparian said. "If they could either recover it or prevent it from being wasted, we're all better off. You don't have it going into the dump site, and you don't have the possibility of it entering the environment."
Brown said he would call the chairman of ICN Biomedicals parent company, ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc., to discuss the situation. The chairman, Milan Panic, was a major fund-raiser for Brown's previous campaigns.
"I'll ask Mr. Panic what he is doing about it," Brown said. "They ought to recycle if they can." Later, Brown said he had been unable to reach Panic, who is in Europe. However, he said, ICN officials had assured him that they are examining ways to reduce the volume of the waste they generate.
Paul Knopick, a spokesman for ICN Biomedicals, said the company discards about 90% of the tritium that is shipped to it for pharmaceutical processing because of the demands of the production process.
"It's a one-shot deal," Knopick said. "You're going to get so much use of that original tritium until you can't use it to manufacture your product anymore. We use 10% of the tritium we get, and 90% winds up as waste."
Knopick said ICN is exploring new engineering ideas that would permit the company to use more of the tritium it receives.
But the real answer, Knopick said, is genuine recycling, in which used tritium gas would be returned to a supplier, which would reconstitute the gas in a centrifuge and make it available for reuse. The drawback, Knopick said, is the expense.
"When you're talking about curies, (recycling) would reduce the waste enormously," Knopick said.