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No Place to Go

Nobody wants the tons of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants. Utilities say the waste should go to Nevada instead of being stored on site. Nevada's congressional delegation says it should stay put. And activists worry about waste shipments going through their communities.

By Margaret Kriz
National Journal, May 10, 1997

In late April, Georgia state Rep. June Hegstrom came to Washington. Her mission: Stop the federal government from shipping tons of nuclear waste through her McCabe County district.

Hegstrom lives across the street from the railroad tracks and a few miles from Atlanta's main highway. She fears that her hometown will become a hub for nuclear waste hauled from power plants in Florida and South Carolina to a proposed temporary waste facility in Nevada.

``All roads lead to Atlanta,'' Hegstrom said. ``We'll be getting nuclear waste shipped from all over the South. You know there are going to be accidents, and the local fire departments don't have the kind of training they need to respond.''

Worried about the dangers posed by a leak of radioactive wastes, Hegstrom has introduced a bill in the state legislature that would slap stiff fees on nuclear waste shipped through Georgia.

Hegstrom is just one of many state and local activists who are protesting plans to transport tons of nuclear waste on the nation's highways and rails to one site in Nevada. Approximately 33,000 metric tons of nuclear waste has accumulated at 110 power plants and military bases in 43 states. That would amount to 300-500 shipments every year for 30 years.

Local activists contend that it's safer to keep the nuclear waste at power plant sites, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it could be secured in concrete ``casks'' for 100 years.

But the utilities that generate the radioactive waste want the used nuclear fuel out of their backyards, and so do some state officials. In fact, transportation has emerged as the most contentious issue in the intensifying federal debate over how to handle the nation's nuclear waste.

Utility industry groups argue--and a federal court has agreed--that the Energy Department is legally required to begin hauling off the commercial nuclear waste by Jan. 31, 1998. If the department fails to meet the deadline, the federal government could be liable for billions of dollars in damages, according to nuclear industry officials.

Faced with that pressure, the Senate recently passed legislation that would require the Energy Department to build a temporary storehouse for the waste at the government's Nevada test site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The bill would override all state and local safety and environmental laws. A similar measure moving through the House would go further and preempt federal environmental laws.

The White House has vowed to veto either bill. Administration officials argue that the waste should remain at the nuclear plant sites until scientists determine whether the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada is safe enough to be used as a permanent repository. Energy Secretary Federico F. Pena said that the department could legally take possession of the waste on site until work is completed at the Nevada facility.

Industry lobbyists, however, reject that option and are spending heavily to round up enough congressional votes to override Clinton's promised veto. Members of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the nuclear power industry, gave $3.5 million in political action committee contributions to current Senators over the past six years, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), an advocacy group that opposes the nuclear waste legislation.

Sen. Harry M. Reid, D-Nev., who strongly opposes dumping nuclear waste in his home state, said that a former Democratic Member of Congress told him that the nuclear industry offered him $20,000 a month to persuade congressional Democrats to back the pending legislation. ``There is going to be unbelievable pressure on some of these Members'' to vote for the veto override, Reid said.

Some of that pressure is working. The Senate vote was two short of what's needed to override a presidential veto. Proponents of the legislation predict that they can garner the two-thirds majority needed to force construction of the Nevada site. But Reid said that three Democrats have assured him that they would switch their votes to help the President avoid a politically embarrassing override.

House consideration of the nuclear waste legislation, which is not expected until late summer, could be equally contentious.

The United States is on the brink of a nuclear waste crisis, according to officials in the nuclear power industry. If the Energy Department fails to haul away the nuclear waste piling up at power plants across the country by the forthcoming deadline, industry officials warn, several plants will run out of space to store their spent fuel and could be forced to shut down operations.

That could cost the utility industry as much as $80 billion, according to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska. If the utilities recover those costs from the federal government, the damages could come out of U.S. taxpayers' pockets.

Problems have already flared up in several states. In Minnesota, for example, state regulators have refused to allow Northern States Power Co. to store any more nuclear waste on site. The company may have to close one of its nuclear plants, at a cost of billions of dollars to its customers, warns Northern States president Jim Howard.

In Illinois, Commonwealth Edison officials have warned customers that if the Energy Department doesn't haul away some of the utility's waste, the firm will have to find more space at its 13 nuclear power plant sites. It puts the cost at $1 billion. The utility will try to pass the cost on to its ratepayers--or the federal government.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., sponsor of the House nuclear waste bill, argues that a shortage of storage space at the Palisades power plant in southwestern Michigan could have dire environmental consequences. ``More and more facilities are running out of room in environmentally sensitive areas around the country,'' he said. ``It'd be far better to put this stuff in one place in Nevada than on the shores of Lake Michigan.''

Environmentalists share Upton's concerns about the safety of the Palisades plant. ``We should never have built nuclear reactors on floodplain or earthquake sites,'' said U.S. PIRG energy lobbyist Anna Arilio. ``But the utility isn't talking about shutting it down for safety reasons. They just want to move the old waste out to make room for new waste.''

Antinuclear groups argue that the utility industry has fabricated the nuclear waste storage crisis. ``There is not a single utility in the country that doesn't have room for another little parking lot'' in which to store its waste, said Fred Millar, director of the Nuclear Waste Citizens Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of consumer and environmental groups. ``What they're really running out of is an economic free ride.''

For years, utilities with nuclear power plants have routinely passed their storage and other costs on to their customers. But many states have begun to deregulate their electricity industries, allowing less-expensive electricity providers to sell power to utility customers. Congress is considering several federal deregulation proposals.

Deregulation poses economic dangers for utilities with high operating costs. With deregulation breathing down their necks, utility industry executives want to get their nuclear waste off their properties--and their books. ``The major nuclear utilities are scared as hell about competition,'' said Chris Williams, director of the Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana.

The nuclear industry has a powerful legal argument for demanding that the Energy Department take the waste off utility property. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the utilities were required to pay a percentage of their electricity charges to a federal trust fund. In return, Uncle Sam promised to build a permanent repository for the utilities' radioactive used fuel and refuse.

Over the years, industry has contributed $13 billion to the fund. The Energy Department has spent $6 billion commissioning geological studies and beginning construction of the Yucca Mountain repository. That site is still more than a decade away from completion.

With the federal government unable to meet its 1998 deadline, the utility industry went to court. In July 1996, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the Energy Department must honor its utility contracts. But even after the ruling, the Energy Department notified the utilities that it couldn't meet its deadline or comply with the appellate court's ruling, because it has no place to store the waste. The utilities are now asking the court to let them stop paying any money into the government trust fund. The companies are also expected to ask the court to force the federal government to ship the waste to Nevada.

In response to the legal skirmishing, Pena has tried to persuade energy executives to accept money to keep storing nuclear waste at reactor sites even after the January deadline. Industry officials have rejected the offer. ``That's not an option,'' said Nuclear Energy Institute president Joe F. Colvin. ``Our primary objective is to move the spent fuel. We told the Secretary that there are many avenues to pursue to move the waste off of the reactor sites.''

In early March, the government of Germany tried to move six canisters of nuclear waste to a dump site in the northern part of that country. The 300-mile trip became an international incident when thousands of protesters laid logs over rail lines and dug holes in roads to block the route. In the end, German government officials called out 30,000 troops and spent an estimated $60 million to move the waste. The German Parliament is now rethinking future shipments.

Could such protests occur in the United States? ``If people know what is being shipped, the answer is yes,'' Nevada Sen. Reid said. ``If people know how dangerous this material is, then they wouldn't let it move through their streets.''

U.S. citizens groups are starting to organize grass-roots opposition to transporting nuclear waste across the nation's highways and rail lines. ``Everyone was focused on the fact that the waste is going to Nevada, so what did they care,'' Reid said. ``Now they're beginning to recognize that it would have to get through their states to get to Nevada.''

Antinuclear activists are seizing on the transportation issue to try to stop construction of the temporary nuclear waste site. They contend that it's premature to move the waste, because if experts find that the Nevada facility is not safe enough to permanently house the radioactive materials, the nuclear waste would be shipped cross-country a second time to another site. ``This stuff will have to be moved from the plants,'' said Indiana activist Williams. ``But it's better to move it when we know we have a permanent repository certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. And it's better to move it only once.''

Activists also warn that emergency response teams in communities across the nation are not prepared to handle an accident that includes a nuclear waste storage container. ``What if there is the possibility of even a small radiation release?'' asked Marianne Webster, president of the Atlanta-based Women's Action for New Directions, which recently held a conference on transporting nuclear waste. ``You know what would happen. The fire department would close down the entire city.''

If a container carrying nuclear waste cracked open, the resulting radioactive contamination probably would not cause immediate deaths in a community. The health effects would depend on how close people were to the waste and how long they were exposed to the radiation. Increased exposure to radioactive material has been linked to increased rates of cancer.

The union representing workers who move the waste is concerned about safety.

``Serious questions remain regarding containment integrity of the transportation canisters,'' the United Transportation Union's legislative director J.M. Brunkenhoefer wrote in a letter to the Senate.

Nuclear industry officials say that they've built an impressive safety record, pointing to the 2,400 shipments of waste that utilities made over the past 30 years. ``There has never been an accident where there has been a cask that's released radioactivity,'' Colvin said.

Colvin's group has distributed a video showing those casks undergoing a variety of torture tests and emerging unscathed. But industry critics say that the tests weren't tough enough. For example, they contend, the casks were not required to withstand a superhot diesel-fuel fire or a plunge from a bridge. The industry's experience in shipping waste is just a drop in the bucket, compared with the colossal job of moving 33,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to Nevada, critics add.

The nuclear power industry is also fighting the ghosts of other notorious transportation accidents that galvanized public attention and planted serious doubts in the minds of the public and of local policy makers.

At a meeting with environmentalists last month, for example, Pena recalled a 1984 incident in which a Navy truck carrying radioactive torpedo fuel overturned on a highway near Denver. The accident closed down the city and angered Denver officials--including Pena, Denver's mayor at the time.

More recently, St. Louis residents complained to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., after they discovered that radioactive waste from the Three Mile Island site near Harrisburg, Pa., was being routed through their city.

The most ominous transportation issue is the one almost nobody wants to talk about: a possible terrorist attack. Industry officials argue that the nuclear waste shipments would not be targets of sabotage. But citizen groups remember the precautions taken in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics, when federal security forces removed the nuclear fuel from a small research reactor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and beefed up the security around the military nuclear waste site in Savannah River, S.C., because of fears of terrorist attacks.

The fear of a nuclear waste accident could slow down congressional attempts to push through the Nevada nuclear waste bill. Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev., who is fighting the measure in the House, is targeting Members of Congress whose districts don't have nuclear power plants but are located along major interstate transportation routes.

Most citizens, however, won't oppose the shipments until the transfer begins, said Jeff Duncan, staff aide to Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who has actively opposed creation of a temporary waste site. ``As soon as people realize that truckloads of highly radioactive waste are rolling down the highway only yards from their homes, they're going to be very concerned,'' Duncan said.

For her part, Hegstrom is not waiting. She's urging legislators in other states to block nuclear waste shipments before the trucks and trains come rattling through their towns. ``This is a real education process,'' she said. ``The industry and DOE keep telling us how safe, safe, safe this is, that we don't need any other regulations to protect us. But it's not safe.''

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