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Dangerous debris.

The pressure is off -- at least for now.

South Carolina's June 13 decision to let all states, except North Carolina, uses its Barnwell facility gave everyone a little more time to decide how to dispose of low-level radioactive waste.

The reopening (Barnwell had been closed to states outside the Southeast region) comes as an especially big relief to generators in 31 states who had been storing low-level radioactive waste on business and industrial sites since June 1994. By virtue of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (LLRWPA) of 1980, those generators had no access to a disposal facility with Barnwell closed.

But Barnwell is only a temporary solution. It will not remain open forever (10 years is about its limit), and states are still responsible for managing commercial low-level radioactive waste under the LLWRPA.

In fact, no new disposal facility has been but since passage of the LLRWPA, and the reopening of Barnwell could further delay the efforts of regional compacts and states to develop new facilities. The opening of Barnwell may encourage states and compacts without long-term solutions to move even more slowly. In the meantime, other ideas are popping up such as consolidating the compacts and reducing the number of facilities currently planned, creating a state and federal partnership, and letting business firms handle low-level waste for a fee.


South Carolina was one of the first states to urge Congress to pass the LLRWPA in 1980 because it did not want to be a national dumping ground. Ironically, 15 years later, Barnwell is still open to the entire country through a proviso adopted in the state's 1995 budget bill.

A lawsuit was filed Sept. 7, 1995, against Governor David Beasley, House Speaker David Wilkins and Lieutenant Governor Robert Peeler, who also is president of the Senate, that challenged the authority to reopen Barnwell through a general appropriations act.

The suit was filed by, among others, the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and former state Representative Harriet Keyserling.

Before 1980, three states with disposal facilities -- Nevada, South Carolina and Washington -- took in waste from the entire United States. Feeling unfairly burdened, and worried by several accidents, the governors of these states, with the support of the National Governors' Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures, urged Congress to pass the act. It encourages all states to share the responsibility of disposal. The act permits states to band together in compacts, subject to congressional approval, and develop regional disposal facilities.

The incentive for states to join compacts is that they can then exclude waste from outside the compact, whereas states that are not members of compacts must -- under interstate commerce laws -- accept waste from everyone. To date, nine compacts have been formed, with one more awaiting congressional approval. Six states -- Massachusetts, Michigan, New, Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina -- are unaffiliated. The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico also are unaffiliated.


Despite years of effort and expenditures of millions of dollars on research, site studies and other preliminaries, no state or compact has developed a facility in the face of political controversy and the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome. The challenge has been to find acceptable sites, then to license, construct and operate facilities. Paul Genoa of Organizations United, a coalition of low-level radioactive waste generators, contends that "the ability to safely store the waste exists, but states lack the political will."

States, however, are making progress. California, Nebraska, North Carolina and Texas have selected sites. Lee Mathews of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Authority claims that Texas will have a facility operating by early 1997.

Ohio passed enabling legislation in June to create the Ohio Low-Level Radioactive Waste Authority, which allows the state to build a facility for the Midwest Compact.

In California, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced in May that he will transfer federal land at Ward Valley for use as a waste site on the condition that there are limits on the amount of plutonium accepted for disposal, safeguards for the endangered desert tortoise and continued monitoring of the site. Don Womeldorf, executive director of the Southwestern Compact Commission, says that a facility in California could be operating in six to nine months once the details of the transfer are worked out, but that litigation is anticipated.


Paul Genoa of Organizations United says that "even if states able to find acceptable sites for the 12 planned new facilities, that would be too many." A May 1995 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, based on studies by DOE and others that examine the economic aspects of low-level radioactive waste, said that fewer, larger facilities would be more economically efficient than several smaller ones. the optimal number was between two and five, the GAO said. Genoa suggests that states could reduce the number of planned facilities by consolidating the compacts. The current compact arrangement has yet to yield any viable long-term solutions; proponents believe consolidating the compacts would provide results.


States are responsible only for commercially produced low-level radioactive waste. The federal government produces twice as much waste as the commercial sector and is already storing it at six sites: the Nevada Test Site, the Hanford Reservation in Washington, the Savannah River facility in South Carolina, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and the Los Alamos Engineering Laboratory in New Mexico.

Environmental consultant George Bierman presented a paper at the Waste Management '95 conference in which he suggested that the states, Congress and DOE work together to develop a single low-level radioactive waste program, rather than separate programs for commercial and DOE waste. Instead of having a host state remove uncontaminated property from the tax rolls and use it for waste disposal that must be managed in perpetuity, Bierman makes the case that former weapons production plants offer potential disposal sites. DOE has a number of large facilities that, over many years of weapons production, have generated large quantities of waste. This waste must be disposed of at some federally operated facility, and DOE is cleaning up these former production sites. With the end of the Cold War, many of these plants have been declared surplus, and DOE must determine the sites' future land use. They could be used by both the states and DOE for waste disposal. The principal benefits to the states and the nation, according to Bierman, include:

* Keeping land in productive use and on the tax rolls.

* Avoiding the costs of acquiring land.

* Avoiding the costs of developing and operating disposal


* Using DOE sites that already exist and that are large enough

to accommodate the states' low-level radioactive wastes.

* Using DOE sites that already have on-site disposal facilities.

* Managing the states' low-level radioactive waste properly

and perpetually along with DOE wastes.

But the GAO cautions against changes to the compact system. Its report specifically examined the option of federal responsibility for low-level radioactive waste. "At first glance," GAO reported, "federal responsibility for disposing [of] commercially generated low-level waste may appear attractive because of existing precedents and the potential for disposing of this waste at already contaminated federal facilities."

The GAO report concluded that establishing a method for federal disposal of commercially generated low-level radioactive waste may be more difficult than the current approach because:

* Commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal is not so

technologically complex that it requires federal management.

* States with substantial federal lands have opposed efforts to

place waste disposal facilities within their borders.

* It is unclear that the federal government could be more

successful than states in obtaining public acceptance of new waste

disposal sites.


A private firm in Utah called Envirocare is now advertising that it is licensed to accept low-level radioactive waste for disposal. Envirocare is not affiliated with any compact, but contracts directly with generators. It is licensed by Utah, but the authority to approve specific waste for shipment to the Envirocare facility still remains with the compact of origin.

Envirocare claims that its disposal costs are a fraction of the price of other facilities. Envirocare negotiates with each generator depending on the volume and type of waste, but costs average about $100 per cubic foot while Barnwell's fee is about $315 per cubic foot.

Envirocare's impact is yet to be felt, but it could provide direct competition to the Barnwell and Richland facilities. Representative Terry Haskins, speaker pro tem of the South Carolina House, said, "From our point of view, we are not competing with anyone...If they [Envirocare] can develop a system disposing of waste that's cost effective, then more power to them. That's what the market system is all about."

The emergence of Envirocare could be a prologue to an increased role for private firms in the low-level radioactive waste disposal industry. The market will dictate how large that role becomes.



Perhaps the reopening of the Barnwell facility to states outside the Southeastern Compact signifies a new era in low-level radioactive waste management: an era that views hosting radioactive waste in state-of-the art facilities as economic opportunity -- not environmental injustice.

With disposal fees at Barnwell estimated to be $315 per cubic foot ($235 surcharge from South Carolina plus an $80 fee from facility operator Chem-Nuclear), South Carolina Governor Beasley expects to raise about $140 million annually for the state's education budget. Based on projected volume levels, experts estimate that Barnwell has space remaining for approximately 10 years' accumulation of the nation's low-level radioactive waste.

Barnwell is a convenient solution, but it is only a temporary one. As Gregg Larson, executive director of the Midwest Compact said, "There aren't any assurances Barnwell will stay open. Besides, the political winds in South Carolina could change again."

Compacts and states across the country may agree with Larson, but not a single facility has been developed since 1962, long before the passage of the LLRWPA. The majority of commercial waste is still being disposed of at two of the three facilities in operation 15 years ago: Richland, Wash., (which serves the Northwest and Rocky Mountain compacts), and Barnwell, S.C., (which was formerly serving the Southeast Compact, but has now opened to the rest of the country). A third facility in Beatty, Nev., was closed in 1992.

The opening of Barnwell to the rest of the country poses some interesting questions for low-level radioactive waste management. Will the compact system survive as it is or consolidate in a more efficient manner? Will the states join forces with the federal government to manage low-level radioactive waste? Will the market and private industry prove more adept than the states in developing and operating disposal facilities? Whatever, the answers to these questions, policymakers are faced with the responsibility of developing policy that will ensure safety for centuries.

"I think this is the toughest issue I'll ever face as a legislator," said Ohio Representative John Bender. "We're talking 500 years down the road. It's an awesome decision."


Two federal district courts. Two contradictory decisions. Should the Department of Energy (DOE) pay all or just part of the rebates owed to states and compacts for disposal of low-level radioactive waste?

The U.S. district court in Pennsylvania ruled May 22 that the department should pay the entire rebate. But the federal district court in Illinois previously had ruled that DOE had to pay only a pro-rated share.

Court action arose from an incentive program established by Congress in 1985 that provided a payback of 25 percent (with interest) of surcharges collected on all waste disposed of between 1990 and 1992. States and compacts were entitled these funds if they provided disposal, storage or a disposal contract to waste generators. If the states and compacts failed to provide disposal, the surcharges (held in escrow by DOE) were to be repaid to the waste generators.

Several states and compacts contracted with the Barnwell, S.C., facility for disposal. When Barnwell closed to outside states in June 1994, DOE interpreted the termination of contracts as providing only half of the disposal needed. Consequently, the department decided, states and compacts were entitled to only half the rebate money.

The Central Midwest and Appalachian compacts filed suit, and the differing court opinions are the result. DOE has filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The surcharge money continues to generate interest while the states, DOE and generators battle in court for the right to use the funds.


Low-level radioactive waste is an end product of many services and technologies that we use every day such as x-rays, smoke alarms, medicines, cancer treatments and research. It is produced by thousands of generators including nuclear power plants, hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, universities, and biotechnology and industrial firms. Examples include tools, sludge, rags, clothing, carcasses, needles, dirt and filters that have been exposed to radioactivity. To ensure public health and safety, low-level radioactive waste must be isolated from the environment for hundreds of years.

States are responsible for managing commercially produced low-level radioactive waste. The federal government is responsible for managing waste produced by the government and all waste classified as high level, such as spent nuclear fuel and other highly radioactive wastes produced at nuclear power facilities. The majority of government low-level radioactive waste comes from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons facilities.

Approximately 1 million cubic feet of commercial low-level waste is produced each year. It is estimated that with nuclear cleanup operations, the government produces at least twice as much low-level radioactive waste as the commercial sector.
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; low-level radioactive waste
Author:Cox, Andrew
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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