• U.S.

Playing Atomic NIMBY

3 minute read
George J. Church

For at least the past decade, the nuclear industry, both electric-power and weapons divisions, has faced the prospect of strangling on its radioactive garbage. Now that may actually happen to the Government’s nuclear-bomb plant at Rocky Flats, near Boulder. Between next March and May, it will reach a limit set by state law on how much waste it can store on site. At that point, Governor Roy Romer could order it shut, making Rocky Flats the first atomic facility to be closed because it is unable to dispose of its trash.

Oddly enough, a facility exists for permanent burial of the waste. In fact, the Government’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a gigantic hole in a salt bed 2,150 ft. beneath southeastern New Mexico, was supposed to start receiving waste (primarily clothing and tools contaminated by radiation) from Rocky Flats and nine other atomic plants around the country this month. In theory, the salt will creep back around the waste, sealing it harmlessly into the earth. But safety concerns and legal problems have put off the opening date to — well, when? August at the earliest, says the Department of Energy (DOE).

Too late, anyway, to head off a game of NIMBY (not in my backyard) between Romer and Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus. Though Government inspectors closed much of the Rocky Flats plant in October because of severe safety violations, enough of it remains running to produce nearly a boxcar load of hazardous waste a week. Until mid-October those boxcars were sent to the National Engineering Laboratory in Idaho for “temporary” storage. But when it became clear that WIPP would not open on schedule, Governor Andrus sent one of the boxcars back to Colorado. There, outside the plant, it still sits, near six more boxcars and a yard full of drums and crates, all packed with toxic trash.

Governor Romer will not let the junk be sent anywhere until a permanent disposal site is ready. And if the poisonous waste passes the legal limit of 1,600 cu. yds.? Until last week Romer had vowed, “I don’t want to close Rocky Flats, but I’m willing to.”

He softened his tune last Friday, however, after getting together with Andrus, New Mexico Governor Garrey Carruthers and top DOE brass in Salt Lake City. All parties agreed on a shaky compromise. They will press Congress to pass quickly a land-swap bill essential to opening WIPP, DOE will not only search for an interim storage site, but will also provide financial assistance to the states. Andrus might let some waste back into Idaho. Even so, Andrus estimated that chances for solving the waste disposal problem had improved only from 1 in 10 to fifty-fifty.

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