Burying radioactive trash: some states balk at regional solutions

It's a bit like a sack of garbage you'd rather send to a dump across town than bury in your own backyard. In this case the garbage is nuclear - some 430,000 drums of low-level radioactive waste produced each year by nuclear power plants, hospitals, and industry.

In New Federalism fashion, Congress has handed the responsibility for finding dump sites for this radioactive trash back to the states. By law they are expected to have sites selected, licensed, and operating by January 1986.

No one now expects that deadline to be met.

Federal legislation passed in 1980 urged states to band together in regional compacts to solve the problem more efficiently and safely. But an increasing number of states appear reluctant to team up without some assurance they won't be tapped as ''host'' to receive an entire region's low-level radioactive waste. Since a regional compact is only a first step, and no one can provide such assurances, several states, including Texas and California, are opting to go it alone.

In Midwestern compact talks, for instance, most participants have long assumed that Illinois, as the area's chief generator of low-level ''radwaste,'' would likely serve as the region's first dump site. But Illinois has already had ample experience with one such site in Sheffield. It was forced to close when it reached capacity and later was found to be leaking. For this and other reasons, Illinois may decide to back out of a compact. Nearby Wisconsin may well do the same.

''Illinois might be first, but we'd be in danger of being the host state next time,'' says Wisconsin state Sen. Joseph Strohl, who backs a go-it-alone approach for his state. Supporting his case, he cites the expectation that the volume of Wisconsin's low-level radioactive waste will fall sharply in future years as some of the state's nuclear power plants are decommissioned. Also, an economic study indicates the cost difference to utility ratepayers, who would bear most of the burden, would be a cent more per month.

''I think the whole process (of forming compacts) is going to fall apart unless someone volunteers to be the host state,'' says Joanna Hoelscher of the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment, who sat in on some of the Midwestern compact negotiating sessions.

There's no question that it's perfectly legal under Congress's rules for each of the 50 states to have its own dump site.

''The national policy would be served by it and there are some economic reasons for doing it,'' insists Elgie Holstein of the National Conference of State Legislators. ''It's a mistake to look on going it alone as a burden or inconvenience to those with compacts.''

But a key problem relates to past history and the federal government's timetable. Three of the original six commercial low-level radioactive waste sites, including Sheffield, have been shut down for management, capacity, and safety reasons. Two of the remaining sites (in Washington and Nevada) were forced to close temporarily in 1979. The management of the third, in South Carolina, vowed to cut back its trash receipts by 50 percent. It was that situation which spurred Congress to action in 1980.

But Congress's proposal to spread the burden to more states could leave some states out in the cold if they fail to find a site by 1986 or develop problems with a chosen site. Once Congress ratifies a compact, the states within it can refuse to accept waste from any states outside the region's boundaries. The Washington and South Carolina dump sites now operating have agreed to continue as initial sites under new Northwest and Southeast compact arrangements. But within three years they could refuse to accept any more outside radioactive trash.

The Northeast and Midwest, regionally the largest producers of such waste, face the disadvantage of being without an existing site. They have to start from scratch.

Some keeping a close watch on developments say they think the federal government may yet be forced back into the ring - to renege on its earlier promise allowing compacts to exclude nonmembers, to involve itself in the site selection process, or to designate temporary sites at federal dumps or near existing utilities.

Many environmentalists argue that a more determined effort to reduce the volume of low-level radioactive waste (often packaging, clothing, and tools are unnecessarily exposed) and a more thoughtful look at alternate disposal methods is needed.

They point out that even a General Accounting Office report of last year urged that dumping capacity not be increased until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission develops a comprehensive program for reducing the quantity of waste and the Department of Energy more thoroughly explores alternatives to the current method of dumping the waste in shallow trenches. Possibilities include deeper burial or surface storage in well-sealed casks or vaults.

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