Storing nuclear waste/The runners-up. As US hunts for atomic waste site, runners-up hold their breath

The spotlight of the nuclear-waste disposal drama is currently focused on sites in Washington, Nevada, and Texas. These are the tentative finalists in the US Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear-waste repository contest. But officials from runner-up states Utah, Mississippi, and Louisiana are still fidgeting. They are trying to keep their defenses up just in case the DOE drops one of its initial finalists and substitutes a stand-in from their area. ``We are proceeding on the assumption that we still may be picked,'' says Patrick D. Spurgin, director of Utah's High Level Nuclear Waste Office.

Since passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1983, the DOE has been marching toward the siting and construction of an underground repository to dispose of highly radioactive spent fuel from the nation's commercial nuclear reactors. The DOE schedule calls for selecting the final site in 1991 and opening the facility by 1998.

Last December the DOE issued a series of draft environmental assessments (EAs) supporting its choice of locations on two federal reservations -- Hanford in Washington and Yucca Mountain adjacent to the Nevada Test Site -- and the Texas panhandle for the next stage in this selection process. The three finalists will each undergo a detailed five-year, $500 million study to determine their suitability for isolating this highly radioactive material from the environment for 10,000 years or more. But the decision will not be final until later this year, when the DOE issues the final EAs.

Until then, officials in the runner-up states are keeping a weather eye on developments. These sites include:

Davis Canyon, Utah. This is a spectacular wilderness of red-rock canyons, stone arches, and rugged monoliths, where political battles between environmentalists and conservatives have a long and legendary history. The prospect of a nuclear-waste disposal site within a few miles of the boundary of Canyonlands National Park has sparked a heated controversy here.

County commissioners in San Juan and Grand Counties who had ties to the depressed uranium-mining industry have written letters to the DOE soliciting the repository; park supporters in towns such as Moab have been vociferously opposed.

The majority of the state's congressional delegation has refused to interfere with the selection process. But state leaders have not been so reticent.

Former Gov. Scott Matheson, a Democrat, left office adamantly opposed to the project and has since set up an organization to continue the fight. His conservative GOP successor, Norman H. Bangerter, also opposes the project.

While they await final word, Davis Canyon opponents have been laying the groundwork for their weapon of last resort: legislation expanding the boundaries of Canyonlands to include the site.

Vacherie Dome, La. Here the attitude is almost relaxed. ``We agree with our ranking,'' says Hall Bohlinger, head of the Louisiana Nuclear Office.

``We hope the rankings won't shift, but if they do, we have a veto agreement signed in 1978 with DOE,'' he says. This was a quid pro quo for accepting the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

(The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1983 [NWPA] gives states veto power but also provides that it can be overridden by the vote of both houses of Congress.)

Of course, the DOE offered a veto to New Mexico as part of a plan to set up a similar repository to store low-level nuclear defense wastes. But Congress refused to endorse the veto rights.

The General Accounting Office has questioned the legality of the Louisiana-DOE arrangement, and the Reagan administration has said it cannot accept it. Still, ``we consider it morally, if not legally binding,'' Dr. Bohlinger says.

Just to be safe, however, the state is building a case that the underground salt dome would not be suitable waste burial.

Richton Dome, Miss. Unlike their neighbors, Mississippians appear actively hostile to a repository. In the initial rankings, the Richton site came in fourth. So if one of the top three sites is significantly downgraded in the final EA, Richton might be chosen instead.

Resistance in the state is ``massive,'' says Johnnie Green of Mississippi's Energy and Transportation Department. According to press reports, a public meeting in Biloxi last February nearly turned into a riot, with participants calling DOE officials ``scalawags'' and ``carpetbaggers. Several war veterans predicted armed opposition if the project came to the area.

Some of this vehemence may be due to disappointment. Mississippi politicians thought they had finessed the DOE and disqualified the site by ammending the NWPA. This instructed the DOE to include a population factor in the repository siting process: ``Such guidelines shall specify population factors that will disqualify any site from development as a repository if any surface facility of such repository would be located (1) in a highly populated area, or (2) adjacent to an area 1 mile by 1 mile having a population of not less than 1,000 individuals.''

Richton sits next to the site and fits the second condition. Despite this, the DOE interpreted the statute in such a way that the site was not disqualified.

Last of a series. Other articles ran June 24-27.

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