Anatomy of a nuclear waste site death Centerior Energy is mystified. Until June 26, Ohio gladly was on its way to hosting a low-level radioactive waste disposal site. Then suddenly at a three-hour meeting, 13 years of planning crashed and burned.
On that day, the Midwest Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Commission voted to derail development of a low-level waste disposal facility in Ohio. The commission represents the Midwest Compact, which comprises Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. Thus, siting efforts were shut down not only in Ohio, but in all six states.
Michael J. Lumpe, spokesperson for Centerior Energy, questions why it happened. "It doesn't make sense, the actions are not supported by the reasons," Lumpe observed.
The project had won the blessing of Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, plus bipartisan support from the Ohio Legislature. In fact, in 1992, when Ohio had agreed to become the host, editorial writers from various newspapers had applauded the idea of a central facility in the Buckeye State to prevent the waste - mostly radioactive clothing, tools and lab supplies - from piling up at hundreds of nuclear plants, research labs and hospitals.
So what caused the project's demise? The official explanation cites increasing disposal costs, the cost of site development, declining waste disposal volumes and improved waste practices. Nevertheless, some want to know what the real reasons were.
Greg Larsen, executive director of the Midwest Compact, on June 26 urged the commission to reconsider its commitment to develop a regional facility. Larsen had cited a decision in a neighboring compact to delay the opening of a disposal facility in Illinois by nine years because of improved waste management practices and rising costs of disposal facilities. He noted that while individually those factors appeared insufficient to change course, when taken together they had convinced the compact to reconsider.
Larsen pointed out that between 1986 and 1995, waste disposal volumes had declined. Between 1986 and 1989, he noted, the national disposal volume averaged 1.7 million cubic feet, while between 1992 and 1995, the volume averaged 695,173 cubic feet - a 58-percent reduction.
Meanwhile, the commission on June 26 could count about $10 million in its Export Fee Fund. The money had been collected from utility ratepayers in the compact's member states to pay for site development. Larsen estimated that at the current rate of spending, the fund would become exhausted in about three years, when a new fee system would be required. Larsen anticipated resistance to imposition of a new fee, given the current availability of disposal access, moves toward utility deregulation, increasing cost estimates and a growing reluctance on the part of generators in other states to fund compacts.
Finally, Larsen pointed to the reopening of Barnwell, S.C., low-level radioactive waste disposal site, and disposal by Envirocare of a limited amount of waste in Clive, Utah. He said those sites presented possible alternatives for disposal.
Midwest Compact Votes
On June 26, the commission voted 5-0 to kill the project. Ohio abstained to protect its legal standing.
The vote cut off funding to the Ohio Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facility Development Authority, which had been created to oversee facility siting and construction. However, the Midwest Compact Commission still remains alive in a "wait and see" mode.
Centerior Energy, the largest generator in the Midwest Compact, voiced extreme disappointment with the decision. Theodore J. Myers, director of nuclear support services at Centerior Energy, at the June 26 meeting had expressed disbelief over Larsen's reasons for reconsideration of a complex, long-term project. "Even with the three stated reasons, the elusion is to future, dire outcomes rather than a serious evaluation of information, and experienced, professional input on options or actions to be taken to avoid the implied conclusion," Myers said.
Myers later pointed out that while it had taken nearly five years for Ohio to obtain the political will to start the process, the whole thing had ended in three hours, with no real public or utility generator input. "Why would I start it up again?" Myers asked. It's "devastating," he said, and predicted that the vote "shut the door on any siting in the future." He said Ohio now distrusts the other compact states.
According to Michael Lumpe, the vote came out of left field. Lumpe believes "there is one person with the answers to this and that's Greg Larsen, and he's sticking to his published reasons and won't give additional ones." Myers agreed. "No true evaluation would have come up with these reasons," he said.
Enacted in 1980, the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act made the states responsible for low-level radioactive waste disposal, but allowed multistate compacts to build regional disposal facilities to cut down on the number of sites. Formed in 1984, the Midwest Compact originally had included Michigan. As the region's largest contributor of radioactive waste from electric generation, medical facilities and universities, Michigan was designated host state to take the waste from the other compact states for 20 years. Eventually, however, the other states removed Michigan from the compact for its failure to move on designating a site. Ohio then accepted the job as host in 1992.
That year, three states took low-level waste - Nevada, South Carolina and Washington. But Richland, Nev., and Beatty, Wash., later closed their sites to outsiders, leaving Barnwell, S.C. with the monopoly. Barnwell briefly closed to outside waste in 1994.
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