GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger lives in a $6,000-a-month hotel suite in Sacramento paid for by special-interest groups, notably including Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, The Times reported on Aug. 24. What do SCE and PG&E; expect from Schwarzenegger in exchange for their largesse? The Times rightly raised that question in a strongly worded editorial on Aug. 29.
Ironically, the answer appeared elsewhere in the newspaper on the very same day. Staff writers Jordan Rau and Miguel Bustillo reported Schwarzenegger’s nomination -- in effect, his interim appointment -- of two nuclear industry lobbyists as California’s representatives on the Southwestern Low-Level Radioactive Waste Commission, or SWLLRWC. The commission’s abbreviation is long enough to make voters’ eyes glaze over, but it makes eyes light up at SCE and PG&E.;
Here’s why. Nuclear power plants have a finite life span, but a dead plant remains dangerously radioactive and must be guarded indefinitely -- at company expense -- if it cannot be chopped up, turned into radioactive garbage and moved to somebody’s dump.
But where can that waste be sent? There’s the rub. In 2003 and 2004, SCE sought to ship 900 tons of radioactive waste from its defunct reactor at San Onofre southward to and through the Panama Canal and then up the East Coast to a dump at Barnwell, S.C. Understandably, Panama refused passage; the cargo was not only too risky, it was too heavy. SCE then sought permission to send the garbage barge down the length of South America, around Cape Horn through the fiercely stormy Strait of Magellan, and then back north to Barnwell. Nothing doing: Recognizing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear shipwreck, Argentina denied SCE passage through its coastal waters.
Which brings us back to the two foxes that Schwarzenegger appointed to the henhouse. In the early 1990s, when I was writing on this topic for The Times’ editorial page, Donna Earley (one of the two, then representing the California Radioactive Materials Management Forum, a lobby serving the interests of the radioactive waste producers), visited the Times editorial board and told us with a straight face that a proposed radioactive waste dump at Ward Valley, near Needles, was principally for medical and pharmaceutical waste. Nuclear power plant waste, she said, would constitute only a small fraction of the waste flow. Nuclear safety watchdogs, notably Daniel Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, offered public-record evidence to the contrary. But definitive refutation of Earley’s claim only came 10 years later in the form of that garbage barge, proof positive of SCE’s desperate determination to hand off responsibility for hundreds of tons of radioactive waste from its dead plant, vastly more than ever had or would come from medical or pharmaceutical sources.
Public opposition to the proposed Ward Valley dump mounted steadily through the 1990s as hydrological and geological evidence accumulated showing that radioactivity could migrate from the unlined dump through soil to groundwater and from the groundwater on to the connecting Colorado River, barely 20 miles away. The dump was slowed in court and finally, in 2002, stopped by a law (AB 2214) that also created guidelines for better radioactive waste disposal. The water supply was saved.
Or so it seemed until April, when James Tripodes, Schwarzenegger’s second commission interim appointee, wrote to a colleague on the commission that “California should be requested to repeal AB 2214 in its entirety.... Repeal of this statute, resumption of the land transfer process from the federal government to California and activation of the license would assure timely development of regional LLRW disposal capacity to meet the needs of SWLLRWC generators” -- including those now picking up the governor’s hotel tab.
On Aug. 31, thanks to this letter (and Tripodes’ clumsy attempt to disown it), the State Senate Rules Committee defied Schwarzenegger and declined to recommend confirmation and renewal of Tripodes’ appointment. As for Earley, the committee voted to recommend her confirmation only after exacting a pledge that she would break with the industry lobby that still employs her and oppose repeal of AB 2214. The full Legislature may still vote against her appointment.
Pockets as deep as those of SCE and PG&E; are intimidating. Yet in the home state of the Sierra Club, voters by the millions have proved that they will respond to leadership that stands up for clean air and clean water. This time, the leadership came from Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), Don Perata (D-Oakland) and especially Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey). As for the Ward Valley dump, the cry of the Terminator -- “I’ll be baaack!” -- has been stifled for the moment. But make no mistake: Somewhere, somebody has a sequel already on the storyboard.