The Prism

Power Companies Escalate Nuclear Mega-Dump

by Jim Warren

Radioactive waste is "the systematic poisoning of our descendants." James B. Conant, former Harvard President, chemist and Manhattan Project administrator.

On October 3 the seven state Southeast Compact Commission poured another $6.5 million into the nuclear mega-dump project planned for the Jordan Lake area, primarily due to the potent influence of the nuclear power industry. The NC Radwaste Authority, which has been stacked from the start in favor of the utilities, continues to inhibit public scrutiny. It's time for the people of North Carolina to remove the Authority before this partial panel takes the dump project beyond the point of no return.

The recent move signals a dangerous but predictable escalation of their efforts to build the dump at a site due south of Durham. Dangerous because the latest cash infusion, committed despite major unanswered safety questions, brings to $100 million the mostly public funds invested in this eight-year nightmare of a project.

Predictable because the nuclear power companies continue to drive the process, successfully pressing their weight within the Compact to move the project forward despite growing concern from non-utility waste generators about the licensability of the Wake/Chatham site--or any in the state in light of unresolved problems with the burial technology designed and promoted by Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc.

Utility executives are business people and I have to believe that the latest $6.5 million escalation reflects a business decision that they believe they can muscle their way through (or sneak around) safety standards and public opposition. And Governor Hunt is firmly behind the burial plan, despite the recent confusion over his position about project funding.

There is pressure building from other parts of the state to somehow make the nightmare come true. Proponents are saying that the money already fed to Chem-Nuclear and the other contractors dining at the public trough (not a nightmare to them) should not go for naught. The most disturbing aspect of this is that the only way North Carolina can recover its $40 million portion of the investment is to get the dump opened, when tipping fees would repay the state. This places additional strain on state regulators to not let safety standards get in the way. In fact, dump proponents have already suggested that key safety definitions be reinterpreted, softened to allow a "more flexible" application to the planned site.

The more we learn about the intentions of nuclear waste producers and other dump proponents, the more reckless their "out of sight--out of mind" burial scheme looks.

Nationally, radioactive wastes are increasingly being compacted, creating hotter wastes in reduced volumes. And the southeastern power companies now admit that they've always expected NC to expand its dump plan to accommodate enormous amounts of decommissioned reactor wastes as the plants age out over the next 2 decades. Amazingly, the Authority recently admitted it isn't following the question of how much radioactivity would come to NC though the latest projection of 3.5 million curies excludes reactor decommissioning wastes from the seven state Compact.

Meanwhile, proponents continue to tightrope a key public health aspect of their plan, the "acceptable" release of radiation from the dump site as the concrete bunkers decompose. Chatham County consultant and nationally recognized expert Dr. Marvin Resnikoff has already calculated that Chem-Nuclear's plan would result in levels of radioactive releases far above regulatory limits. To many of us closely following this issue it seems incredible to gamble that Mother Nature will comply to Chem-Nuclear's theoretical models of gradual dump failure. And as more is understood about radiation and health, scientists worldwide reflect growing concern about the dangers of low-dose radiation exposure in terms of cancers, immune system damage and other health problems.

The rotting of the democratic process

For years NC WARN and others have been asked, "If this project is really as bad as you say it is.....How could it have possibly gotten this far?" I believe there is a fairly simple answer:

"Money doesn't talk, it swears," as aptly stated by Bob Dylan. And the grimy fingerprints of undue political pressure from the powers-that-be are all over the NC project.

Like other big corporations, power companies adroitly utilize their huge investments in state politicians to throw their weight around. With hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into NC pols' pockets each year, it's no wonder a key legislator recently admitted, "What the utilities want, the utilities will get." (See Nuke Waste, Money & Politics by Democracy South, September Prism insert). What they wanted in the mid-eighties was a heavy presence on the Authority; they got their wish and have maintained it.

Not surprisingly the Authority, charged with administering the dump plan, has served the North Carolina public poorly. Their eight years of activity have been undemocratic and deceptive, with far too many blocks to honest public education. Too much "public relations" distortion. Too many secret meetings. Too many public meetings held without adequate notification. Too much withheld or untimely information and on and on.

A simple test of this is the "gloves and booties" myth. After several millions of public relations dollars spent through Authority staff and Chem-Nuclear, look at the level of public understanding about the fundamental facts of the project. Try this test yourself: of the central NC residents who know anything about the dump plan, the majority--including many media, believe it or not--still think that this "low-level" dump is planned for primarily medical waste (contaminated gloves, boots and surgical gowns). How many people realize that nearly all the radioactivity would come from inside nuclear reactors? The Authority and its contractors have sustained this very successful campaign of public distortion--and you and I have paid for them to lie to us.

It is a total injustice that citizen groups and Chatham County have had to spend our precious resources to counter this and the other major distortions by well-financed dump proponents. Again, it raises the simple question: if the project is so safe, why can't it be defended honestly? Although there are people with integrity involved in the project, there are many others who have made decisions they will never want to tell their grandchildren about.

Numerous individuals from the medical and research communities also bear blame for this distortion, for carrying the shield for the power companies as if our medical future hinges on a mega-dump. This long-running national campaign to justify regional dumps has placed the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association in cahoots with the power industry, most recently under the umbrella of the Eagle Alliance.

NC WARN calls on the non-utility waste generators--medical, pharmaceutical and research facilities--to stop protecting the power companies, to distance themselves from the current project and to join our call for a truly independent assessment of this huge problem. The Reactor Site Storage plan we promote provides for storage of non-reactor wastes at selected nuclear reactor sites.

Opponents have long struggled against the natural human tendency to wait until a threat is acutely imminent (and hence often unstoppable) before sufficiently addressing it. It's time to escalate people power, before any more public money is committed by the incoming legislature toward the bail-out of the nuclear utilities for their waste dilemma. State leaders must hear from you:

  1. Insist on replacement of the NC Radioactive Waste Authority with a truly independent citizens' panel. There are simply too many conflicts of interest on the current Authority.

  2. Get NC out of the Southeast Compact. Until this happens, all future Compact meetings should be held in central NC (a new "stakeholders" committee will soon commence to determine the project's full funding through the construction phase). Although the Compact's headquarters is in Raleigh and NC residents clearly are most impacted, the Compact has held only three of its last 34 meetings in this, the targeted state (since mid-1987) while meeting more often in all but one other Compact state in that period, including seven times in Georgia.

  3. Get the money and political influence out of the decision-making. The people of this state deserve an honest and open public process, which is virtually impossible when waste generators fling millions of dollars at politicians through our campaign finance system of legalized bribery.

  4. Call on the media to also reject the influence of waste generators' dollars and do its job informing the public on the full ramifications of the project--and the alternatives to a regional mega-dump.It's time for a stronger collective voice to say "No Way!" to the NC nuclear waste nightmare and yes to safer and fairer alternatives. I hope we can look back at this project as simply a very expensive mistake which was caught in time.

Jim Warren is the director of NC WARN. Call 919-490-0747 to find out how to fight against the dump.

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