Missouri Pays Price for Lag in Radioactive Waste Disposal Delay in Developing National Dumping Plan Draws Fire

Article excerpt

South Carolina's students are getting a better education because Missouri is sending low-level radioactive waste to their state.

The only dump that takes such waste from Missouri and many other states is in Barnwell County, S.C.

After a one-year freeze, the dump recently reopened with increased fees, including a $235-a-cubic-foot surcharge earmarked for the state's schools.

Missouri has 22 generators of low-level waste, including universities and research facilities. Most had been stockpiling their waste, and last month began shipping again to Barnwell.

But they complain of the more than $100-a-cubic-foot jump in disposal cost at Barnwell -and blame the dilemma on America's flawed plan for building regional waste dumps.

In 1980, Congress directed the states to join "compacts" to form regional waste dumps. Fifteen years later - and $300 million spent nationally - not a single dump has been built. And disposal costs have leaped seven-fold.

"No question, the process is flawed," said Tom Lange, Missouri's low-level waste coordinator. "It's absurd the money that's been spent on really no success."

So far, the only winners are the geologists, lawyers and consultants getting paychecks in the years of planning - and the South Carolina school system. The surcharge is expected to bring in up to $130 million this year for the schools.

The root of the problem is simple: No community wants a radioactive dump in its back yard. Highly radioactive spent fuel rods are piling up in the nation's 109 nuclear power plants because the federal government has been unable to establish a site for a high-level waste repository.

A similar problem existed with low-level wastes in universities and research institutions throughout Missouri before Barnwell reopened.

Washington University has 2,000 research labs, and half of them use radioactivity in experiments. The result is two tons of low-level waste a month.

And while radioactivity can cause cancer, Michael J. Welch, director of the division of radiological sciences at Washington University, said that disposing of low-level waste was no more dangerous than many other kinds of hazardous material.

"There's this national phobia about things radioactive," he said. "It's outrageous that the groups that were formed more than 10 years ago to solve this problem have shirked their responsibilities." Michigan Kicked Out

When Congress directed states to join into "compacts" in 1980, Illinois teamed with Kentucky in the Central Midwest Compact. It spent $90 million before selecting a site near Martinsville, Ill.

But that site was abandoned in 1993 over fear that it could endanger the local water supply.

Missouri is in the Midwest Compact, which tabbed Michigan as the host state because it produced the most waste. …