Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Low-Level Radioactive Waste Piles Up

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Low-Level Radioactive Waste Piles Up

Article excerpt

FORGET the old fuel rods piling up at nuclear power plants in the United States. There's a more urgent radioactive-waste problem to solve.

A substantial part of the roughly 1 million cubic feet of dirty gloves, contaminated equipment, used chemicals, and other low-level (mildly radioactive) waste that the US generates each year may soon have no place to go.

A pileup of this kind of waste could begin to curtail a wide range of beneficial uses of radioactive material. It also will encourage hospitals, universities, and other waste producers to store their wastes on their own sites. And that, says Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Ivan Selin, "should only be allowed as a last resort."

Some of these waste producers are already turning to that resort as the last nationally accessible repository prepares to close down. There were three such national dumps 13 years ago - in Barnwell, S.C., Beatty, Nev., and Hanford, Wash. Beatty closed last January. Hanford accepts waste only from members of the so-called Northwest Compact - Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington plus Hawaii.

Now only Barnwell remains open to all comers. Next June 30, it too will restrict access and will accept waste only from the Southeast Compact - Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. By 1996, Barnwell is likely to be shut down entirely.

Congress prepared the way for the low-level-waste crunch when it passed the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act 13 years ago. That stuck the states with the responsibility for dealing with this kind of waste. It encouraged them to form "compacts" to handle waste regionally. Most states joined one of nine such compacts. But Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are on their own.

As amended in 1985, the law set Jan. …

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