Getting dumped

Despite shoddy science, bad economics, and catastrophic health risks, a West Texas border community may become the nation's nuclear dumping ground

Though the authority claims an agreement with Vermont and Maine will protect Texas from taking other states' waste, that compact would be run by an independent body of commissioners who could contract with any waste generator they wanted. If Texas is the first state to site a waste facility under the Federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Act, it could find itself the final resting place for most of the nation's low-level radioactive waste.

But for this to happen, the TNRCC would have to disregard data collected by Radioactive Waste Management Associates, a consulting group hired by dump opponents, which suggests gross underestimations of the potential contamination of the water table below the site, as well as the potential exposure to nearby humans.

Furthermore, because of technological innovations, the amount of low-level radioactive waste produced annually has been steadily decreasing for years, and some waste-management industry leaders say demand for their service is on the decline. Alvin Staley, a vice president of Waste Management Inc., whose subsidiary runs a disposal site in Barnwell, South Carolina, where most of Texas' waste now goes, says, "We're taking the waste from probably 70 to 80 percent of the United States right now, and we're struggling to remain profitable." Economic pressures may force Texas to open the dump to more states than Maine and Vermont. Unlike South Carolina, which levies a substantial tax on deposits to the Barnwell facility, Texas by its own laws can only break even, and there's no guarantee it won't lose money. According to a 1997 study of the economics of nuclear waste, done by economist F. Gregory Hayden, a new nuclear dump might not even be economically feasible.

Part of the reason for Texans' relative silence on the issue of the dump is simply that West Texas is so remote from most of the state's population centers. And part of the reason is that utility companies, who will save more than 50 percent of their disposal costs if the facility is built, have funded an aggressive public-relations campaign. Guided by an opinion survey showing that the public doesn't trust industry spokesmen, but does trust doctors, they have trotted out medical experts who imply that medical research and treatment could come to a grinding halt if no facility is sited--despite the fact that there is no shortage of existing storage space.

If it's ironic that Texas will not benefit from accepting other states' waste, it's perhaps even more ironic that Mexico may suffer the consequences. "We did not benefit from U.S. nuclear power--if you consider nuclear power a benefit--and now we are asked to take the risks, not only for the waste Texans produced, but from nuclear plants thousands of miles away," says Mexican Senator Norberto Corella of Baja California.

One of those who will shoulder the risks is Ruben Reyes. His brick-oven bakery is in Guadalupe, a pueblito with about 5,000 people and not much in the way of paved roads. At the main public square, where shirtless teenage boys play basketball, a hand-painted sign hangs high on the facade of the old town library: "Clinton y Bush: Llevate Tu Basurero Nuclear" (Clinton and Bush: Take Your Nuclear Dump With You). Reyes hung it there. He mistrusts government's ability to live up to its promises, to follow building specifications, and to manage a facility safely. He believes that in the case of Sierra Blanca, the "falsification and manipulation" of the truth have already begun. And with a hard scowl, the otherwise gentle baker asks a question that state bureaucrats might be hard-pressed to answer.

"If it's so safe," Reyes says, "why don't they put it on the Canadian border?"

If one believes the authority, the dump will be safe enough to be the site of a residential subdivision only a century after it closes, when the land can be returned to "normal use." Governor George Bush, one of the dump's major supporters, has consistently maintained that if the dump isn't safe, it won't be built. But Bush himself has spouted misinformation about what will go in the dump. "Much of the discussion is about disposal of, for example, X-rays," he told an Associated Press reporter in February. "This is low-level radioactive waste. This is not high-powered plutonium."

Actually, the draft license issued by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission specifically permits plutonium from power plants to be buried on the site. And there won't be any disposal of X-rays, because X-ray machines and X-ray film are not radioactive. By volume, only 23 percent of the low-level waste generated in the United States comes from hospitals and research institutions that use the material for diagnosis and treatment. When measured by total radioactivity, more than 90 percent comes from nuclear power plants. The federal classification "low-level" includes most of the irradiated parts of a nuclear reactor, except the spent fuel rods. Because radioactive elements leach out of reactor fuel rods, and reactor parts themselves become irradiated, the dump will contain not only plutonium-239 (with a half-life of 24,000 years), but small amounts of other highly toxic substances such as iodine-129 (half-life: 16 million years) and nickel-59 (half-life: 76,000 years). A radioactive element remains hazardous for 10 or more half-lives. In contrast to these lengthy time spans, most medical waste remains hazardous for less than eight months.

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