State officials eye nuclear waste decision. Regional compact makes North Carolina host of South's waste

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

State officials nationally are watching to see how a compact of eight Southern states holds together following its difficult decision to assign one member the duty of storing the region's radioactive waste. The compact, the Southeast Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact, has decided North Carolina will receive its low-level radioactive jetsam for a period of 20 years that will begin in seven years.

Since last spring, North Carolina has been the leading contender to serve as host for the dump site. In the meantime, the state has been skittish about the compact. How the state itself responds to the final vote is considered a key test of how regional compacts are going to work. The compact, voluntarily entered into, is a mechanism to get over the ``not in my backyard'' syndrome of storing hazardous waste.

``It's the first test of whether a compact is going to hold together when they select a state,'' says Holmes Brown, a Washington, D.C., consultant. Further, the assignment is a test of the increasingly important system of regional compacts, he notes. Although such compacts have dealt with sharing benefits between states before, such as Colorado River water, this is the first test of a compact for sharing unwanted facilities.

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As the Southeast compact's technical contractors weighed the merits of each state for a dump site, North Carolinians rebelled over the process. A key sticking point was the year used to compare the waste each state produces, 1983, which was an unusually heavy waste year for the state. Legislation was introduced, but not passed, to withdraw from the compact.

In August, however, Gov. Jim Martin (R) said publicly that his state would accept the regional dump, if fairly selected.

Governor Martin has already set up a state commission to begin the two- or three-year work of deciding how to actually pick a dump site within the state.

Martin, however, doesn't make the decision. That authority rests with the general assembly where resistance to the dump has centered.

North Carolina's options may be less attractive than hosting the dump. Texas is the only state currently ready to go alone, without a compact, to handle only its own low-level radioactive waste. The state is taking a legal risk that it won't have to take out-of-state waste.

For the Southeast compact's host state, ``the question is whether there will be political pressures building up within a state that forces them to pull out,'' says Mr. Brown. ``If the first designee in the Southeast were to pull out, it would create pressures in other states.''

In the past, most of the nation's low-level radioactive waste was dumped in Barnswell, S.C. It took in 80 percent of the national total as recently as 1980. Since then, South Carolina has cut its quotas in half, sending more waste to the other two dumps in the country, one in Nevada and another in Washington State.

As these states grew uncomfortable with the safety of the dumps, a federal law passed allowing regional compacts to exclude waste from outside states.

States that produce a high volume of waste tend to volunteer as sites, and form compact with smaller states to keep from having to take in other state's waste. California, for example, is trying to form a compact with the Dakotas, which haven't produced low-level radioactive wastes in years.

Three other compacts, the Central Interstate, Midwestern, and Northeast, are choosing host states. The Midwestern compact is trying to lure volunteer states forward with financial incentives. The Central states are choosing a site-developers proposal, then will let the developer choose his site.

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