Choice of finalists for A-waste site stirs up controversy. Critics point to politics; legal challenges are launched

The ``finalists'' are known, some people are crying, ``Politics!'', and others are heading for the nearest federal court. The Department of Energy (DOE) has announced that the first permanent high-level nuclear waste repository would be located in either Washington State, Nevada, or Texas.

At the same time, Energy Secretary John S. Herrington announced that the selection process for a second site, to be located in the eastern United States, will be indefinitely postponed. The seven states that were being considered for a second facility include: Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

A 1982 federal law calls for the selection of two national repositories for high-level commercial and military nuclear waste. The first is to be completed in 1998 and the second in 2006. Both repositories must be designed to safely hold up to 70,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear waste for 10,000 years.

The decision to shelve plans for an eastern repository rested on the issues of budget and need. Energy officials assert that dropping the second site is feasible due to a slower growth rate of nuclear waste. Early estimates put the need for storage capacity at 140,000 metric tons by 2020. Those numbers have now been revised down to 110,000 metric tons.

``It is clear that to go ahead and spend millions of dollars on site identification now would be both premature and unsound fiscal management,'' says Energy Secretary John S. Herrington.

But some critics of the decision to drop the search for eastern sites say another reason for the shift is political. Since the Energy Department's announcement on Jan. 16 identifying the seven eastern states, opposition among people in those states has been tremendous. Critics of the decision also say that 1986 and '88 election-year politics and the recent nuclear accident in the Soviet Union were also considered by the administration.

Congressional sources assert that citizen outrage in the East against a second site was so strong that the administration feared losing the first facility as well.

A number of Republican candidates have tough races this year in states that had been selected as potential sites. One Capitol Hill source close to the issue says that Rep. James T. Broyhill (R) of North Carolina got ``beaten up'' in the Republican primary for Sen. John East's seat when his contender claimed that Mr. Broyhill lobbied for the site in North Carolina. The suggestion is that politicians put pressure on the White House to keep the issue out of coming elections.

Broyhill denies that he pressured the administration, saying he was on record well before the recent primary as opposing the site until it is absolutely necessary. ``The administration would have been criticized if they hadn't made a decision. Either way someone would claim politics was the reason,'' he adds.

Some environmentalists are not convinced that the remaining three sites are the best technically. ``We want the DOE nuclear-waste program to succeed, but we don't like putting all the eggs in one basket,'' says Brooks Yeager of the Sierra Club. ``The decision to drop the selection process for a second site was political, not technical, and hurts the integrity of the program.''

Citizen opposition, primarily at the grass-roots level, to siting plans has been extremely strong, regardless of geography.

In Texas, the Nuclear Waste Task Force, established by landowners near the Deaf Smith County site, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to prevent any further studies there. Noting the number of food and agriculture activities near the proposed site, Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower asked rhetorically, ``Didn't we learn anything from the accident at Chernobyl, where food supplies for part of a continent were contaminated?''

Local farmer Anthony Paschel is concerned about possible contamination of the water table. ``If there is an accident here like there was in Russia a few weeks ago, then there won't be water left for a jackrabbit.''

All three Western states either have filed suit against the federal government or are planning to.

Utah is considering joining the lawsuits to prevent reconsideration of a potential location there should one of the other three be dropped for scientific or political reasons.

Referring to the looming legal and political battle, Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter says, ``Until a site is selected and they start putting waste into the ground, it's not over.''

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