CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Actor Tries to Put Spotlight on Nuclear Dump : The candidates have avoided environmental issues. But Robert Redford’s radio ads raise the Ward Valley debate.


It was threatening to become the first California governor’s race in at least a decade in which the environment wasn’t an issue. Then actor Robert Redford decided to bring up a controversial matter that both candidates have tended to avoid until now.

In a series of radio ads starting today, Redford urges voters to oppose Gov. Pete Wilson’s efforts to locate a dump for radioactive waste in the eastern Mojave Desert about 20 miles from the Colorado River.

Over the sound of running tap water, Redford states the concern of environmental and anti-nuclear groups that leaking radioactivity from the proposed Ward Valley dump could pollute the nearby river, imperiling the drinking water supply of millions of people.


“It’s hard to imagine that something as commonplace as tap water could become radioactive, but it could happen right here in Los Angeles,” Redford says.

Sponsored by Americans for a Safe Future, made up of mostly of people in the entertainment business opposed to the Ward Valley project, the 60-second ad is slated to run several times a day for two weeks on KABC radio, said Michael Dieden, a consultant for the group.

The fate of Ward Valley has become a subject of intense debate among environmentalists, scientists and policy-makers around the country who are struggling with the problem of what to do with the nation’s accumulating pile of nuclear waste. But it has had no place in a gubernatorial debate focused mainly on crime and immigration.

Neither opposing nor endorsing the dump, Democratic candidate Kathleen Brown has said only that she favors “a full adjudicatory hearing on the issue so that all sides can be heard”--a position reaffirmed by her press secretary, John Whitehurst, in response to the Redford ad.

In taking that stance, Brown is echoing the Clinton Administration, which first called for such a hearing last year.

A spokeswoman for the Wilson campaign said the governor would have nothing to say in response to the ad unless Brown came out against the Ward Valley project. “(Brown) has been unequivocally unclear as to where she stands on Ward Valley,” said Beth Miller, deputy press secretary for the Wilson campaign.


Although Wilson has said little about Ward Valley during the campaign, he worked hard behind the scenes to overcome judicial and congressional obstacles to the dump and to win over a skittish White House. The federal government owns the land where the dump would be located and must approve its transfer to the state before the dump can be opened.

In his ad, Redford raises a crucial safety issue--whether the Colorado River could be poisoned by radioactive waste--which is far from settled. State officials insist that harmful doses of radioactivity could never escape from the dump.

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious independent scientific body, convened a panel of experts to investigate the suitability of the site. Topmost among the questions confronting the panel is whether long-lived nuclear waste, such as plutonium, could leak into the ground water under Ward Valley and ultimately make its way to the Colorado.

The panel is to present its findings to U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt by the end of the year. Babbitt has said he then will hold a hearing before deciding whether to transfer the 1,000-acre site to California.

The Redford ad is designed to arouse enough public opposition to Ward Valley to force the candidates to address the issue, its sponsors say.

“We believe the politicians have been ducking the issue because the public hasn’t known about it,” said Dieden, the consultant for Americans for a Safe Future. “Once we’ve made the public aware of this plan, we believe the reaction is going to be pretty strong, like . . . ‘The governor actually wants to place a nuclear waste dump next to the Colorado River!’ ”


Dieden said the ad, which he said cost $10,000, will be broadcast in San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento if enough Los Angeles listeners respond to an 800 number asking for support.

Pressure for the Ward Valley project comes not only from the nuclear power industry but from hospitals, laboratories and biomedical firms that use radioactive materials. California has no officially sanctioned repository for the waste, and a growing number of institutions are being forced to warehouse radioactive refuse in quarters not designed for that purpose.

Some hospitals have said they are beginning to cut back on critical research that relies on radioactive material in order to generate less waste. Moreover, Wilson has warned that the biomedical industry, one of the bright spots of the California economy, will look to other states if the Ward Valley site is rejected.

Redford’s ad says that Americans for a Safe Future has an alternative plan to Ward Valley, but the group’s executive director, Matt Peterson, said Wednesday that “we’re still trying to develop a specific plan.” Peterson said the group is supporting a bill pending in the state Legislature that would require the state Department of Health Services to find an alternative site.