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Radwaste crisis narrowly averted.

Radwaste crisis narrowly averted

A threatened Jan. 1 closure of the United States' three low-level radioactive waste landfills was headed off by eleventh-hour passage of a compromise bill in the House and Senate. The new law, expected to be signed by the President imminently, will for the first time provide a series of economic sanctions for states that do not move to develop their own radioactive waste dump or that do not bankd with other states into a compact that will share a waste dump.

"It's a triumph for the country," says Wright Andrews, an attorney representing the states of South Carolina, Nevada and Washington on the issue of low-level waste. His clients, tired of being the repository of evryone else's wastes, had vowed that if something wasn't done to put teeth into the existing federal law mandating creation of additional low-level waste sites, they would simply shut down their facilities to out-of-state generators. But as a result of a complex congressional compromise reached on Dec. 19, Andrews says, "now all generators have real assurance there will be somewhere to send their wastes."

The proposed shutdown could have proved devastating, not only to research but also to medicine, points out Michael Welch, past president of the New York City-based Society of Nuclear Medicine and a researcher at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. A July 12 letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to all generators of low-level rad-wastes advised them to make contingency plans for dealing with those wastes in the event the existing repositories closed.

"We believe that by compacting our wastes we can in fact store them [at the university] for 10 years," he said at an American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago last September. But that's because the university does not generate large quantities of waste. Among those who do, he noted, are the makers of radiopharmaceuticals and radioisotopes for use in medicine and industry. And if they lost their ability to store wastes, he said, they might be forced to shut down production of those materials.

"At least 322 people with academic positions in our medical center are approved users of radioisotopes," Welch noted, "an about 60 percent of the [center's] grant money is for research that uses radioisotopes." In other words, he said, closure of the low-level waste dumps could potentially shut down more than half of the grant-funded research at institutions like his. And, he added, a halt in the production of radiopharmaceuticals could jeopardize the availability of nuclear medicine procedures; currently 10 million to 12 million such procedures are undertaken in the United States annually.

In 1980 Congress enacted the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act. The law was designed to prompt sales -- either individually or collectively -- to establish their own repositories by Jan. 1, 1986. But as of March 1985, "there were no new sites even close to being on the hori-States annually.

It was a political standoff between the states that had taken action to form-compacts and those that hadn't, Andrews explains. Congressional ratification of the compacts would have given any of them the right to exclude wastes generated by noncompact states, beginning Jan. 1, 1986.

"Imagine yourself a senator or member of congress from New York," Andrews says. "If you had voted to allow some compact and then they cut off access to your state's generators, you'd be in a political pickle." So the unaffiliated states voted against ratification of the compacts.

Last year, the governors of North Carolina, Nevada and Washington decided to break the congressional logjam over ratification of regional pacts by offering an ultimatum: Ratify the pacts and pass legislation that will economically punish states that don't move to develop their own waste sites, or we will shut our doors on Jan. 1 to everybody but our in-state generators. At the same time, the three states offered to extend by seven years the deadline for excluding out-of-state wastes.

The new law would not only ratify seven previously agreed-upon state compacts, but also provide that:

*For wastes generated by out-of-compact states, states with a waste site could assess a surcharge that escalates from $10 per cubic foot in 1986 to $20 per cubic foot in 1988 and to $40 per cubic foot in 1990:

* 25 percent of all surcharge fees would be held in escrow.

*Escrowed money would be returned to the waste generator's state if it met milestones set for the period in which the surcharge was collected. These include membership in a ratified compact by July 1, 1986, or certification by a state's governor that the state will develop its own waste site; site selection for a new landfill in its compact or borders by Jan. 1, 1988; and completion of a waste site by Jan. 1, 1992.
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Title Annotation:legislation against radioactive pollution
Author:Raloff, J.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 11, 1986
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