Energy & Environment

Hot Stuff on Ice

For decades, states have been wrangling over disposal sites for radioactive waste. The latest proposals are generating as much controversy as ever.
by | April 2001
 

The Minnesota Legislature came close to anarchy seven years ago when it took up the super-charged issue of what to do with used--but potentially dangerous--fuel from nuclear power plants. Running out of room inside its protective water pool, Northern States Power Co. had proposed storing highly radioactive waste in stainless steel casks outside the two reactors it operates at its Prairie Island power plant on the banks of the Mississippi River. During the ensuing debate, two state senators received anonymous telephone threats and Greenpeace activists unfurled an anti-nuclear banner from the Senate gallery rail. "It was the most bitterly fought issue I've seen since I've been in the legislature," says Senator Ellen R. Anderson, a nuclear-energy critic.

Legislators finally agreed to let the utility stockpile no more than 17 containers of spent fuel rods at the generating station less than 50 miles downriver from Minneapolis-St. Paul. But that compromise could soon come back to haunt Minnesota energy customers. Within eight to 10 years, some experts predict, the state could encounter power shortages rivaling California's current calamity. By 2007, however, the Prairie Island plant will have filled up the 17-cask quota, and the 1994 law could shut down more than 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity just as Minnesota residents are watching the lights go out amid electric power blackouts.

With the supply-versus-demand forecast turning grim, "we're all nervous wrecks," says Anderson, who now chairs the state Senate's energy committee. It's far from clear that Minnesota can replace the Prairie Island power, she adds, so "the pressure to undo it [the 17- cask limit] is going to be tremendous."

Minnesota's dilemma is hardly unique. Around the country, more than 100 nuclear reactors in 31 states generate 20 percent of the country's electric power. But after 20 years of debate, neither federal nor state governments have taken charge of dealing with the perilous, long-lasting byproducts those nuclear plants have spawned. The U.S. Department of Energy is a dozen years behind schedule in its controversial plan to bury spent nuclear fuel deep beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. And despite two decades of negotiations by 10 separate multi-state compacts, not a single state has agreed to open its borders to a new facility to dispose of less radioactive, but still hazardous, low-level wastes from generating stations, hospitals, laboratories and other facilities that use nuclear material.

This failure to find a permanent means of disposal is giving rise to some rather more desperate--and presumably temporary--schemes for what to do with the unwelcome nuclear backlog. Minnesota, for example, might still be spared another acrimonious row over nuclear waste with the help of a 125-member Native American tribe that's willing to take the most lethal kind of radioactive material and stash it on its impoverished Utah reservation.

The Skull Valley Band of the Goshutes tribe is working with Northern States Power, now part of Xcel Energy Inc., and seven other power companies to start storing spent nuclear fuel from Prairie Island and other power plants in Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin. Once the facility is up and running, possibly in two years, the companies plan to ship in 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive used-up fuel and stockpile it in 4,000 outdoor steel-and-concrete casks.

The reservation lies within sparsely populated Tooele County, just across the Cedar Mountains from military proving grounds where the U.S. Air Force tests cruise missiles. Skull Valley is also just 45 miles southwest of Salt Lake City and the heavily urbanized Wasatch Front corridor where the state's population is concentrated.

Governor Michael O. Leavitt has vowed to resort to "all lawful and appropriate means" to keep Private Fuels Storage (PFS), the utilities' consortium, from shipping spent fuel to Utah. "Unlike Minnesota, Utah chose to be nuclear power free," Leavitt wrote to Minnesota's Public Utility Commission last year. "Now we are being forced to accept the consequences of other states' decisions."

But regardless of whether Utah officials approve, it appears increasingly likely that all the nuclear waste that nobody else wants could wind up in two sites, roughly 25 miles apart, in adjacent Tooele County valleys.

The Tooele County government, for its part, is volunteering for the honor. The area's 7 inches of annual rainfall, tight clay soil and sparse population make it inviting to industries trying to figure out what to do with some of their most troublesome waste byproducts. Since World War II, the county has turned the handling of dangerous materials that no other places want into an economic engine. Along with military proving grounds, the county's 7,000 square miles include a toxic magnesium processing plant and U.S. Army incinerators where 43 percent of the nation's stockpiled chemical weapon agents are being destroyed. In the 1980s, the county established a 100-square-mile Hazardous Waste Industries District just northwest of Skull Valley where three incinerators and one landfill have been installed to dispose of pesticides, solvents and other risky materials.

"Nobody else wants to take responsibility to take care of these things, but we're doing our share to clean up the nation," says Teryl Hunsaker, the Tooele County commission chair. The commissioner says waste-disposal ventures already provide 2,500 jobs, including 350 at a 1-square-mile site that Envirocare of Utah opened a decade ago to dispose of slightly radioactive soils, mill tailings and similar low- level waste near Clive, a Union Pacific Railroad siding close to Interstate 80.

Envirocare developed its venture independent of the multi-state compacts that Congress established in 1980, which were supposed to encourage states to agree on where to open additional regional facilities for low-level radioactive waste disposal. South Carolina is moving to close the one low-level site that most of the country now uses; but after spending nearly $600 million trying to locate new sites, other states have all but abandoned the effort.

Rocky Mountain and Northwest states, including Utah, have continued to send their waste to a privately run dump at a federal nuclear facility near Richland, Washington. After limiting access for a few years, South Carolina recently reopened its low-level waste facility in Barnwell County to the rest of the country, although it has refused North Carolina's waste since its northern neighbor balked at accepting a regional facility. To reap what benefits it can, South Carolina levies a $220-per-cubic-foot tax on the waste Barnwell accepts, with receipts earmarked for higher education. The state's take has fallen short of projections, however, as industry cut its costs by compacting wastes and taking other steps to keep volumes as low as possible.

But South Carolina wants to husband Barnwell space for the waste that will accumulate in 20 or so years when the state's seven nuclear power plants are dismantled. The state has left the Southeastern states' compact and signed an agreement to accept waste only from Connecticut and New Jersey. After 2008, 39 other states and the District of Columbia will be looking for new disposal outlets. Tooele County's Envirocare site could be their best alternative.

Envirocare now takes only the least concentrated radioactive wastes that decay to safe levels within 100 years. But the firm is preparing to compete with Barnwell for more intensely contaminated materials-- considered dangerous for 300 to 500 years--that must be packaged in containers and enclosed within more protective barriers. The amount of that debris is expected to grow over the next few decades as aging power plants are shut down and demolished.

Envirocare was embroiled in legal controversy a few years ago, and Utah's former Radiation Control Division director has been indicted on charges that he extorted bribes from the firm's president. But the executive has been cleared, and Tooele County officials say they've got no doubts that the facility can handle more threatening wastes without a problem. "When Envirocare closes down, there will be less radioactivity out there than you could find on the Wasatch Front at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah hospitals," maintains Hunsaker, the county commissioner.

Last year, Utah's Radiation Control Division tentatively endorsed the company's application for a license to start taking more troublesome grades of low-level waste. The governor and legislature must give their consent, however; and Envirocare decided against seeking legislative approval this year. Company officials say they held off in part because the PFS plan for storing much more dangerous spent fuel in Skull Valley has stirred up such passionate opposition that many Utah residents might not distinguish between high-level and low-level radioactive dangers.

At least state officials have the authority to accept or reject additional low-level waste at Envirocare's facility. The state might not have anything to say about whether the Skull Valley Goshutes open a depot for spent power plant fuel that poses a lethal threat that will last at least 10,000 years. Only 25 or so Goshutes actually live on the reservation, but the tribe's sovereign status under Indian treaties leaves state and local officials without authority to overrule the deal tribal leaders cut with the PFS consortium. "We don't have the same ability to say no on tribal lands," notes Dianne R. Nielson, Utah's environmental quality director.

In an effort to deal with the spent-fuel dilemma, Congress ordered the U.S. Department of Energy to take charge of commercial nuclear waste in 1998. Two years after that deadline, however, federal agencies are still reviewing whether the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada will be safe for permanent disposal. Meanwhile, Nevada is fiercely resisting a congressional proposal to establish an interim federal storage operation near the Yucca Mountain site. The first Bush administration appointed a special DOE negotiator to find a community willing to host an interim waste holding area. New Mexico's Mescalero Apache reservation considered the offer but eventually dropped out. That's left the Skull Valley Goshutes--and Tooele County leaders--as the only takers.

Neither PFS nor tribal leaders are disclosing the terms of the deal. State officials and Goshute dissidents question whether three tribal officials who signed the lease in 1997 actually had the power to make that commitment. Nonetheless, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the agreement, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has given a tentative green light to licensing the PFS facility. "It's a federal decision, but we'll certainly be in court if the license is issued," Nielson says.

Meanwhile, Leavitt and Utah legislators are desperately trying to throw up other roadblocks. This year, Republican leaders drafted legislation making it illegal for the county or private utilities to supply the PFS site with electricity, water or natural gas. With the governor's support, they've also proposed charging PFS partners $150 billion upfront if they start shipping waste to Utah. Legislators want to offer the Goshutes an economic development package, including educational scholarships, as an alternative to the venture. Three years ago, the legislature transferred the only road to the reservation from county to state jurisdiction. The state erected a new road sign declaring "High Level Nuclear Waste Prohibited Except By Permit."

Tooele County, one of Utah's few predominantly Democratic outposts, cut its own deal with PFS last year. Tribal lands are exempt from property taxes, but the consortium agreed to pay the county up to $300 million in lieu of taxes if the commissioners didn't oppose the project. "The Goshutes have got just as much right to go into business as anybody else in my county," says commission chair Hunsaker. "Instead of declaring another Indian war, we ought to be working with these people."

Some resistance has surfaced inside the county courthouse. Gene White, a retired assistant postmaster, unseated one incumbent commissioner in last fall's election by campaigning against the PFS deal. Once spent fuel is delivered, White says he doubts it will ever be removed even if the Yucca Mountain project is completed. "If they come out to Tooele County and drop off 40,000 metric tons of waste, I'm afraid that temporary storage will become more permanent than temporary," he says. "We've had a whole lot of stuff that's been dumped on us over the years."

But lightly populated Western states have less political power than regions where high-level waste is accumulating, "so when it comes down to it, PFS will probably prevail," White says.

One PFS partner, Southern California Edison, has asked permission to store spent fuel at its San Onofre nuclear plant for as long as 50 years; and Leavitt has asked Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura for a meeting to discuss the Skull Valley project. Minnesota Senator Ellen Anderson says she's sympathetic to Utah's concerns but isn't sure her colleagues will consider lifting the Prairie Island plant's limit on spent fuel. "There aren't any really good storage solutions; but as a Minnesota legislator, I'd rather have it out of my state," she adds.

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