What to do with 'orphan waste'

Coloradans must decide where to put the remnants of a closed

It's called orphan waste - a sympathetic term for nuclear refuse that has no home.

Over the years, it has accumulated at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver - and by the time it is all collected, officials say there will be enough to cover a football field with waste drums stacked 100 feet high. But with the plant scheduled to be razed by 2006, politicians are looking for a place to put it.

They are dealing with an emerging post-cold-war conundrum: What to do with waste that is too radioactive for some federal repositories and not "hot" enough for others. One of the leading options here is to send the waste to a landfill in eastern Colorado, but those residents say the big city is simply dumping dangerous trash on rural ranchers.

The controversy is emblematic of the debate over how to safely transport and dispose of America's nuclear leftovers - from spent nuclear fuel rods to the refuse of decommissioned weapons plants. And although the Rocky Flats situation is unique - unlike other plants, it can't store its waste on site - experts say orphan waste could become a more serious problem as plants still in operation churn out more weapons.

In Rocky Flats, however, orphan waste is already a major concern. "This is the largest and most comprehensive cleanup and closure of any nuclear operation ever attempted in the US," says Pat Etchart, a spokesman of the US Department of Energy (DOE) at Rocky Flats.

The opening of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico last month was supposed to resolve many of the waste problems across the country. Nuclear waste that could not be stored on site would be shipped to one of six approved DOE facilities or a storage location - such as WIPP. But the in-between status of the Rocky Flats waste has forced officials to look elsewhere.

One commercial waste site in Utah would like to give the waste a home, but it currently is not licensed to accept it.

Yet lawmakers are feeling pressured to designate a home soon, and some say a dedicated waste dump is the only answer for a project of this magnitude.

Shipping Rocky Flats waste to eastern Colorado is a solution supported not only by DOE, but also by numerous leaders around suburban Denver. One of the boldest proponents of the plan is freshman US Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat from Boulder. Shipping Rocky Flats waste to a hazardous-waste dump near Last Chance, Colo., he says, will ensure that cleanup of the nuclear plant - located in his district - remains on schedule.

"The Flats is not designed to be a waste-storage facility, and if we don't clean it up, it will become a de facto storage facility," says Representative Udall. "Right now, we have this site sitting in the midst of 2 million people."

He envisions setting a national example by transforming Rocky Flats into a public park for hiking and recreation. "This is an opportunity to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle," he adds.

Critics blast the idea of opening a former nuclear-weapons site to the public, and they disapprove of taking radioactive waste to another part of the state.

Colorado's new Republican governor, Bill Owens, opposes the Last Chance plan. He is aligned with an array of constituents, ranging from eastern Colorado ranchers to the state's environmental community - which, ironically, largely backed Udall in the November election.

"The position that Representative Udall is taking ... smacks of economic injustice," says Tom Marshall, of Boulder's Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. "It's a solution where the wealthy communities around Rocky Flats are saying, 'We don't want this waste, so let's send it out to eastern Colorado ranchers. They are economically disadvantaged. They don't have the power to fight this.' "

Governor Owens argues that Flats waste should be sent to the commercial waste facility in Utah called Envirocare. "It makes no sense to move this waste from one point in Colorado to another point in Colorado when a site is Utah is willing to accept it," says Dick Wadhams, press secretary for Owens. Envirocare could just as easily obtain a license for the waste as Last Chance, he says.

He also stresses that when Last Chance opened in 1993, residents obtained a written promise that the dump would never accept radioactive waste. "Governor Owens believes we should hold to that promise."

Pam Whelden, whose family runs cattle and raises wheat near Last Chance, is counting on it. "Our land is just as important as anyone else's," she says of the expanse of prairie homesteaded by her husband's great-grandfather in 1909, which now adjoins the hazardous-waste landfill that may receive Rocky Flats waste. "We feel like we're a big garbage dump for the waste from metropolitan areas."

For his part, Udall says the plan isn't intended to foist waste on rural Coloradans. "I don't disregard the people out there, but times change," he says. "There may be a way that the promise can be adjusted."

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