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Folly of the Wake Radioactive Waste Site

by Gerald Drake

  (Comments for the Southeast Compact Commission Committee on Financing Low Level Waste Site Development in North Carolina on January 30, 1997)  

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a national organization of physicians and other health professionals, formed in 1962, because of concerns about the medical effects from nuclear weapons. This led to concern about health effects from pollution caused by defense and commercial radioactive wastes.

There are several uncertainties including finance associated with development of the Wake County "low level " radioactive waste (LLRW) site.

First, an original estimate of $21 million was made by the contractor to reach the licensing stage. A hundred and two million has been spent and another $34 million is needed now to reach that point. Then from $75 to $100 million will be required to construct the facility.

The LLRW Policy Act is proving to be uncertain if not failed. The Northwest compact is the only one operating. Some states are going it alone. The Southeast Compact is uncertain. South Carolina has withdrawn leaving the Compact Commission without a continuing source of funds.

The Wake County site's hydrogeology is uncertain and will remain so even after results from additional characterization attempts are completed. Separate geologists hired by Wake and Chatham Counties found the site unsuitable. An analysis by Radioactive Waste Management Associates for the Chatham County Preferred Site Committee also found the site unsuitable. If the hydrogeology is uncertain, monitoring is uncertain.

The effects from minimization of the waste volume are uncertain. Total LLRW shipped to commercial dumps in the US in l980 was 3.5 million cubic feet. In 1993 it was 1.7 million, about a 50% reduction. Large volume is important for profits for the operator, adequate repayment of $31 million, ongoing expenses for the State of North Carolina, and for funds for the Southeast Compact.

A study done by Radioactive Waste Management Associates showed that 99.8% of the radioactivity in LLW shipped from New York State in 1994 came from nuclear power. It showed that medical "low-level" shipments declined from 20,000 cu. ft. in 1986 to 5,000 in 1994. Academic waste was reduced from 4,000 to 1,000 cu. ft. in that time. These reductions resulted from improved technology such as substituting Enzyme Linked Immunosorbant Assays (ELISAS) for Radioimmuno Assays (RIAS) and using shorter-lived radionuclides with on-site and off-site storage for decay.

The availability of alternative LLRW services can affect the waste site financing. ADCO Services, Inc., located in Finley Park, IL, provides generalized rad-waste services to the nuclear industry, research, and medical fields. They provide transportation, and liability for the waste. Twenty- five New York institutions use ADCO. They take waste for off-site decay at about $74 per cu. ft. Only after months of legal hassling between the compacts, were SE Compact LLW generators allowed to use ADCO. They do not serve NC generators probably because ADCO uses Barnwell for disposal.

Envirocare of Utah, Inc., has a one mile square, arid desert site about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City, 45 miles from the nearest town. They manage selected LLW and mixed waste disposal. They are licensed by the state and NW Compact of which Utah is a member. They cannot serve NW Compact states but can serve all others. Enviro-Care tells me their disposal cost is about $100 per cu. ft. They expect to do considerable business in SE Compact states.

There may be more LLW management facilities started which will create uncertainty about the lowest cost options for disposal of these wastes.

The effect from deregulation of the electric utilities is uncertain. Some nuclear power plants may be forced to close because of their high rates to consumers. This would affect the volume of "low-level" for a disposal facility.

The cost for disposal of LLW is uncertain. An estimate for the Wake site done for the NC LLRW Authority is $250 per cu. ft. Marvin Resnikoff, of Radioactive Waste Research Associates, estimates $400-$500. The cost at Barnwell is about $350.

Theodore Taylor, former Los Alamos N-bomb designer, estimated it would cost 0.2% of the utilities charges for electricity from New York's six nuclear plants over 30 years to build reinforced concrete structures on the reactor sites. He concluded "on-site nuclear plant storage was best for New York and all other states and probably all other countries...until the least dangerous way for permanently disposing of all nuclear waste has been found."

Douglas Crawford-Brown, is an expert on risk analysis and health effects from radiation in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at UNC-CH. In testimony for the NC General Assembly Review Committee on LLRW in 1993, he said, "The State should examine the economic and political feasibility of tying disposal of LLRW to the eventual fate of nuclear power facilities...and the feasibility of constructing suitable on-site disposal facilities....The small fraction of LLW produced by non-utility sources could easily be incorporated in the waste of a single nuclear power facility...."

Some utilities have built or are building long term on-site LLRW storage facilities. The Electric Power Research Institute has published guidelines for them.

Whether the Wake site is licensed or not, litigation can be expected over how the site was selected and its suitability. Litigation can also be expected concerning exports and imports of the waste from compacts and states within compacts as well as single states.

There is an alternative to pursuing the present grossly uncertain course. It is power reactor on-site storage for all "low-level" waste at least until the uncertainties can be more adequately evaluated. A reassessment of all radioactive policy is needed at state and federal levels. Reclassification is needed based on hazard and radioactive half-life rather than calling everything "low-level" that isn't irradiated fuel. For example, 74% of the volume of high-level waste in Sweden would be called LLRW in the US.

With all these uncertainties, prospects for investment in the Wake project are also uncertain. I expect investors and users would be hesitant to commit funds or guarantee volumes of waste for disposal when they can't predict how much they will need it or what it might cost.

  Gerald A. Drake, MD., is treasurer of the Triangle chapter of PSR.  

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