Storing nuclear waste/The Deaf Smith site. Prospect of nuclear waste dump draws scowls from farmers in Texas panhandle

Wayne Richardson scowls darkly when the topic of nuclear waste comes up. Mr. Richardson is a farmer, but he has more than the price of wheat on his mind. His family farm is threatened by the federal government's search for a resting place for highly radioactive wastes from the nation's commercial nuclear power plants.

The 3,800-acre Richardson Seed Farm is in one of three locations that the US Department of Energy (DOE) has said are the most likely candidates for the nation's first underground repository for commercial nuclear wastes.

``A couple of years ago, when I first heard that they were drilling bore holes for this depository, I thought they must just have some money to waste,'' Richardson recalls.

After all, he asks, ``Who in their right mind would put that sort of a thing in a breadbasket area like this?''

This is wheat and cattle country. Deaf Smith County, where the repository might be located, is one of the state's top counties in agricultural receipts.

Last year, Richardson's operation alone provided seed for 8.3 million acres of wheat.

In March 1984 Richardson received a notice that his farm had been picked for a repository site and there was a meeting about the matter in 26 hours. This gave him and his neighbors time for little more than a hasty caucus.

When the group arrived, the officials conducting the meeting couldn't even give them the precise plots of land involved, he complains, adding, ``Our relationship has gone downhill from there.''

Recently the site was shifted two miles.

But this has meant that the wells that irrigate one-third of his land, rather than his land itself, are in immediate jeopardy.

While the strongest criticism of this site comes from the farming community, local merchants appear more equivocal. Such a project would bring new jobs.

But this gain might be more than offset by the departure of some major local food companies. Frito Lay and Holly Sugar have said a repository might force them to move. Arrowhead Mills, a major health-food company, maintains that its operation is incompatible with such a facility.

Intense opposition to siting a repository here wove the issue quickly and colorfully into the bigger-than-life fabric of Texas politics -- specifically, the United States Senate contest between Democrat Lloyd Doggett and GOP Rep. Phil Gramm, who won the election.

Mr. Gramm had voted for the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA), which authorized the repository program (including provisions that strengthened federal control). Mr. Doggett accused him of backing the dump.

But Gramm successfully neutralized the attack; Energy Secretary Donald Hodel visited the state and characterized Gramm as an effective opponent of the Texas site.

This helped Gramm win the election. But it also put him on the record as opposing the project, making opposition bipartisan.

Shortly thereafter, the state attorney general sued the DOE, challenging the way it picked the Texas sites. The NWPA instructed the DOE to identify sites and notify the states of their identity by mid-1983.

But it wasn't until much later that the department narrowed the 300-square-mile area in the panhandle to two specific sites.

In addition, the state charges that the DOE improperly held up publishing the required site-selection guidelines for more than five months until after the Texas selection was made.

This way the DOE didn't have to justify its decision according to the guidelines, says the suit, which is still pending.

With last December's release of the repository draft Environmental Assessments (EAs), the Deaf Smith site was officially raised to preferred status, touching off a statewide furor.

Democratic Gov. Mark White declared that ``sparks would fly'' before panhandle residents ``glow in the dark.''

DOE meetings in the area were packed with hundreds of angry and concerned people. A state agriculture commission survey found that 73 percent of the people in the region opposed the idea. State legislators began passing statutes to throw up a barrier of red tape to hinder DOE activities.

Since then the initial, largely emotional response has simmered down.

The almost two-inch thick EA provided opponents with considerable ammunition.

Richardson and his neighbors pored through its hundreds of pages and found much that bothered them.

The EA states there are three wells on the site. The farmers say there are 36. The report states that 75 percent of the nine-square-mile site is farmland, of which half is dry land and half is irrigated. The farmers say that 85 percent is farmland and 90 percent of this is irrigated.

These mistakes are relatively minor, and ``for every error, there are hundreds of facts which are correct,'' counters the DOE's William Bennett, a deputy director in the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.

But superficial or not, these mistakes tended to confirm local suspicions.

``If they are 92 percent wrong on the wells, what's to say they aren't 92 percent wrong on other things?'' Richardson asks.

In fact, the panhandle has a number of decided geological pluses for a repository. More than 1,000 feet beneath the fertile plains are thick beds of salt. ``Thick-bedded salt deposits have many well-known, favorable attributes as repositories,'' according to a 1983 National Academy of Science report.

Salt formations are considered very stable. They contain very little water. Fractures tend to be self-sealing. And they conduct heat readily, making it easier to keep the temperature of buried waste canisters down.

But there are questions about the extent to which these advantages will be realized in the spot the DOE selected.

Far less is known about this site than the other preferred sites.

The nearest geological data was taken three miles away. This lack of site-specific knowledge is offset somewhat by the fact that ``the geology is extremely uniform,'' says Linda McClain, the DOE project manager.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has criticized DOE for not giving ``adequate consideration'' to the possibility of fractures and faults in the salt beds.

``DOE simply doesn't have sufficient data on this site'' to justify picking it for the next phase of investigation, argues Steve Frishman, who heads Texas' Nuclear Waste Office.

The next step is site characterization, a $500 million project that involves buying land around the site, drilling a large shaft into the salt bed, and digging out a series of tunnels so that extensive technical studies can be performed to determine its suitability for holding lethal nuclear wastes.

Opponents argue that even this work endangers two valuable aquifers above the salt. Tapping these underground water sources -- the Ogallala and Dockum Group aquifers -- transformed the panhandle from short-grass prairie to fertile farmland.

In recent years, however, the water table has been dropping, making ground water increasingly precious. So many here consider any risk to their water, no matter how slight, unacceptable.

Wayne Wyatt of the High Plains Water Conservation District says: ``We won't allow the waste or contamination or the transfer of one drop of water between the [two aquifers].''

The primary environmental concern during site characterization is that sinking a very large shaft through the two aquifers might create a permanent leak between them.

The DOE's Ms. McClain points out that similar shafts have been sunk in several other parts of the world.

But ``we've failed miserably to get the message across that this is not some new, gee-whiz technology,'' she adds.

NRC experts are less sanguine. ``We have serious concerns about shaft sealing,'' says the NRC's Hubert Miller, chief of the commission's repository projects branch. And this is a major state concern, adds Mr. Frishman.

When weighing the risk of contaminating the water supply with radioactivity, the DOE appears to hold the firmer ground.

Even if water leaked into a repository in the salt, corroded away the waste-containing canisters, and became contaminated, it would tend to carry the radioactive material downward to a very deep, briny aquifer called the Wolfcamp.

While not as conservative as NRC would like, DOE estimates of the time it takes for ground water to reach the accessible environment are the longest of the three sites: 87,000 to 361,000 years.

And there are fewer uncertainties in these estimates than at the other sites, the NRC says.

There are only two scenarios that pose a clear risk to the upper aquifers: major spills of radioactive material or contaminated water from the repository's above-ground operations, which would require that the facility be closed and forgotten.

Then someone drilling into the formation might hit contaminated material. Drilling fluids might pick up this contamination and spread it to the upper aquifers.

A variation on this theme would be if contaminated water leaked into the Wolfcamp and this deep radioactive plume were drilled.

``If we can put a man on the moon, I'm sure we could bury this radioactive waste safely,'' says Wes Fisher, mayor of Hereford, the Deaf Smith County seat. ``What bothers folks most is that it's in the hands of the feds.''

Second of five articles. Next: the Hanford, Wash., site.

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