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Sorry, Imminent Demise for Nuke Waste Site is Unlikely

by Jim Warren

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A flurry of reports in the state press in June and July led many people into thinking that the proposed nuclear waste project slated for the Jordan Lake area on the Wake-Chatham border was being scrapped. In addition, the incorrect impression has been created that Governor Hunt cut off funds for the dump.

The confusion is due in part to the complex nature of this eight-year project and in part to ambiguous statements by the Governor and by the Southeast Compact Commission, the seven Southeastern-state board representing the "low-level" nuclear waste generators. There is a danger that the public is relaxing its vigilance at the very time when there needs to be increased pressure to implement viable alternative plans.

The state is locked in a power play with the Compact to determine who will pay for additional studies to try to prove the licensability of the site, located 20 miles due south of Durham. The Radioactive Waste Authority (the NC panel which administers the dump project) and its contractors proposed the studies as a new $28 million "Consensus Licensing Work Plan" which has been approved by the state's Division of Radiation Protection (DRP).

Governor Hunt stated in June that the state "remains committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Compact and will continue to work diligently toward that end." The governor told the Compact that the state is not likely to pay for the additional studies (work for which the Compact has traditionally paid) but he reiterated on July 3 that "we are ready to go forward under that plan (the Licensing Work Plan)." And the state has already committed to continue paying for the Authority and the DRP; at historical rates of spending, this would add $7 or $8 million more to the project, which has already spent over $90 million in tax and electric ratepayer money.

The Compact likes the work plan; their June 18 resolution states that the Compact "desires to provide funding" to support site development and seeks "to ensure that the second regional disposal facility becomes operational." But the Compact set a condition that Governor Hunt must appoint a negotiator to agree to terms for accepting the Compact's money, at which point $1 million in interim money would be released by the Compact to continue operations until an agreement could be reached on funding the first $4 million phase of the work plan. Pending that chain of events, the funding for Chem-Nuclear and the other contractors would run out by the end of July. Chem-Nuclear has been demoted and would still build and operate the dump but Harding Lawson Associates has replaced Chem-Nuclear as the project manager. The Compact has rejected Hunt's assignment of Representative George Miller (Durham) and Captain William Briner of Duke University as negotiators, claiming they have conflicts of interest because they are NC's commissioners on the Compact.

The Compact's terms for future funding were unspecified but the Compact chairman stated that he thinks the Compact's money should be put in escrow and given to NC only if the site opens, after NC has funded the continued work. This would put NC money totally at risk if the site is not licensed and would add enormous pressure on the state to grant a license to recover its funds.

Those who feel this project is over have overlooked a simple fact: the state cannot simply walk away from this dilemma. John MacMillan, the Authority's executive director, admitted at a June meeting that to pursue any other NC site would cost a minimum of $40 to $50 million even before construction costs. And the governor and the nuclear power industry have much to lose if a total project shutdown occurs, resulting in a costly and highly visible court battle over the future funding and the vast sums already poured into this seeming black hole of a project.

So the pressure is on the Jordan Lake site. Nationally, the nuclear power industry is still struggling to find a place to dump its waste. As a leading legislator recently warned, "in North Carolina, what the power companies want, the power companies get."

Patrick O'Neill recently reported in the Chapel Hill News on finding a July 1995 memo to Governor Hunt, from Representative George Miller„a top player and dump proponent for eight years. Miller raises concerns about Chem-Nuclear's poor performance in North Carolina and suggested NC consider withdrawing from the compact. Miller, an attorney, also proposed that NC "consider alternatives to waste disposal in NC", and "initiate temporary on-site storage plans....These are already in place [at Shearon-Harris in Apex and McGuire near Charlotte].....The major utilities can handle waste for an indefinite time period."

The power companies abhor this idea, as does the supposedly independent Authority, preferring that the state should take responsibility for the industry's problem, even though power plants generate over 99% of the radioactivity of so-called "low-level" nuclear waste, including virtually all of the most dangerous wastes.

The Authority and the legislative committee which oversees it have consistently refused to even consider any plan which retains liability with the major generators.

The public is finally getting a fair look at the alternative waste plan calling for above-ground, monitored storage at selected nuclear power reactor sites. The Triangle Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility and NC WARN co-authored and submitted a report to the Governor and the legislature, calling on the state to appoint a truly independent panel and to consider the alternative of Reactor Site Storage. PSR, NC WARN and many other organizations have long argued for such a system. The report is also appearing in a number of North Carolina newspapers.

Many longtime opponents feel the more that is learned about the site, the worse it looks - and are convinced that if federal and state regulations are adhered to, the Jordan Lake site could not be licensed. But political pressure is no stranger to this project and should not be underestimated. Indeed, the infamous Epley Report and the highly politicized siting process will likely be revisited in court if and when a license is approved for the Jordan Lake site.

Any additional funds spent on the project would add to the already substantial pressure to build the dump - especially in the eyes of under-informed and more geographically distant state taxpayers - to subordinate health and safety concerns and stop the financial bleeding by approving an unworthy site and a dangerous and problematic burial technology.

NC WARN believes the state may intend to compromise by paying part of the additional studies. Please call the Governor (800-662-7952 or 733-4240) and your state representatives and senators (733-7928), especially Rep. Miller (733-5878).

(1) Tell them: No backroom deals with the nuclear power companies. No more NC $ for this project.

(2) Call for a truly independent panel to re-evaluate the state's options, with due consideration of the plan for Reactor Site Storage - which would prevent private industry from dumping its problems on the public.

Jim Warren is Director of NC WARN (Waste Awareness and Reduction Network).

Problems mount on the health and safety front regarding the Jordan Lake site and the burial technology proposed by Chem-Nuclear. A new report from Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, commissioned by Chatham County, shows that Chem-Nuclear has badly underestimated dose releases of radioactivity from the facility. The Authority and its contractors are struggling to keep calculations of expected gradual leakage under "acceptable" or regulatory levels, even as the estimated waste inventory continues to rise. This problem is so serious that the Authority is considering reducing the size of the dump, a proposal which Compact members objected to in June because they want to bring their wastes from decommissioned reactors to an NC dump. (Over 20 reactors are expected to be retired during the life of the dump). This was a rare public admission of the intention to bury highly radioactive reactor component wastes. Chem-Nuclear hasn't included projections for the millions of curies from these additional tons of wastes.

Additionally, it has been verified - even by the contractors - that groundwater is "outcropping," migrating to the surface water, on all four sides of the proposed containment area. This is another extremely serious problem with the site.

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