Crisis looms in disposal of nuclear waste

December 28, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- Thousands of hospitals, pharmaceutica makers and electric utilities across the country face grave new troubles in the new year, when it will become much more difficult and costly to dispose of their low-level radioactive waste.

The problems grow from a 12-year-old federal law that was intended to make the disposal of such waste more equitable to the states with dump sites. But political conflict and public opposition have frustrated attempts to carry out the law.

Under the law, the three states that have been accepting and burying radioactive waste can, starting Jan. 1, exclude any waste generated outside their own region. Nevada will shut its dump at Beatty completely, and Washington state's site at Hanford will accept waste from only six other northwestern states and Hawaii.

That will leave only one dump open for the rest of the country, in Barnwell, S.C., where authorities, enjoying a monopoly in an unwanted trade, will impose an "access" fee of $220 a cubic foot for waste from states outside the Southeast. That, plus transportation costs, will increase the disposal costs as much as fivefold for waste generators in California and other states.

Even so, the South Carolina dump is to shut to outsiders within 18 months and close altogether by 1996. After that, given the emotional public opposition to new dumps, it remains unclear where the nation will be able to store the thousands of cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste, which includes equipment from nuclear power plants, contaminated clothing, radioactive "tags" that are used to track the flow of drugs in the body and radioactive cancer treatments.

High-level radioactive waste, such as that from nuclear weapons production or spent fuel from nuclear power plants, is disposed of by the federal government, but each state is responsible for its low-level waste.

The deepening crisis reflects the partial collapse of the interstate "compact" system Congress envisioned when it passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980. It encouraged states to join with neighboring states in building dumps so that each region shared the burden equally. Nine such compacts were formed.

But years of political gridlock and determined local opposition blocked the creation of any new dump sites.

For example, California, which produces nearly 9 percent of the nation's low-level radioactive waste, has been planning for years -- in compact with Arizona and the Dakotas -- to put a dump in Ward Valley, in the Mojave Desert near Needles, close to the Arizona border. But the project is tied up in complex legal and political knots, which are unlikely to unravel before the South Carolina dump closes.

In the meantime, major producers like the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a 1,100-bed research hospital in Los Angeles, can do little except worry.

"We are in a holding pattern," said Donna L. Early, director of radiation and environmental safety. "I am not going to allow anybody to generate large quantities of radioactive waste until I know where I will dispose of it. We will have to ask, 'Can we do that kind of research?' "

The difficulty of disposal also has become a key factor in keeping California's promising biotechnology industry from leaving the state. Many of the companies, based mostly in San Diego and in Silicon Valley near San Francisco, have considered moving to the Pacific Northwest or the Southeast to be near the two functioning dumps.

The increasing problems with disposal has had some benefit: Production of low-level waste dropped to 1.4 million cubic feet in 1992 from 2.7 million cubic feet in 1985.

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