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Intended Capacity of Nuclear Waste Dump Questioned


Responding to a lawsuit by opponents of a proposed nuclear waste dump in the Mojave Desert, state officials are saying that the Ward Valley site is being designed to store about 7,000 times more toxic material than was disclosed in the environmental assessment of the project.

The admission prompted U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to urge Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday to revoke the facility's operating license. Boxer, a Democrat, has spearheaded political opposition to the site.

Even though the dump is being designed to handle a large amount of toxic material, state officials said this is a remote, worst-case possibility.

The state has issued a license for construction and operation of the dump, but the project has been on hold because of safety concerns expressed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. The site, 20 miles from the Colorado River near Needles, is on federal land, and Babbitt must agree to transfer it to the state before work on the dump can proceed.

For years, opponents have contended that opening the dump there raises the risk that radioactive waste will leak into ground water and eventually make its way into the river.

Now, in legal papers, opponents have seized on the state's recent admission that it had clarified the public record on the proposed waste site, saying it is evidence of a "bait and switch" by which the public was lulled into believing that Ward Valley would be a repository of relatively benign nuclear waste.

State officials, along with U.S. Ecology, the firm licensed to operate the dump, have long argued that the bulk of the waste destined for Ward Valley is short-lived radioactive material from hospitals and biotechnology firms.

The state's environmental impact report on the project estimates that over the dump's 30-year operating life it will receive less than one curie, or roughly seven grams, of plutonium-239, the most toxic and long-lived radioactive material scheduled for disposal there. (A curie is a measurement of radioactivity.) Plutonium waste is generated by nuclear power plants.

But with its recent acknowledgment that the site might take much more, the state Department of Health Services, which issued the dump license, has fueled suspicion among critics that it has long known that the inventory of plutonium-239 will vastly exceed the amount stated in the environmental report. Instead of a few grams of plutonium-239, the project could accept as much as 120 pounds of the material, opponents say.

"The newly available information reveals that the California Department of Health Services intentionally withheld from the public accurate data about the waste that would be buried in unlined trenches at Ward Valley," Boxer wrote to Wilson.

Boxer recommended that Wilson revoke the license and redo the environmental impact report.

State officials insist that they have not changed their estimate of the amount of plutonium-239 expected to end up at Ward Valley.

The officials maintain that the information provided in the lawsuit illuminates what amounted to an academic exercise, reflecting a so-called worst-case scenario that was required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The commission required that it be included in the license application.

In part of the application, the officials gave a potential level of 3,448 curies as part of that worst-case scenario, rather than the .45 curies mentioned in the initial environmental report.

"It is the difference between a theoretical exercise and expected reality," said Peter Baldridge, a staff attorney with the health services department. In the worst-case analysis, officials said, they are required to assess the safety of the site under extraordinary circumstances. The officials pointed to language in the license application that reads: "It must be realized that this projection is considered to extremely overestimate the amount of (power plant) decontamination waste expected to be generated."

According to Elisabeth Brandt, the department's chief counsel, "the license application very clearly states that we are assuming (the larger amount of plutonium) for purposes of an analysis, and that it has nothing to do with what we actually expect to receive."

She also said the worst-case analysis showed that "the site would be safe if you put 3,500 curies in it." Brandt said the worst-case analysis was not included in the environmental report because it measures anticipated effects. She added that the worst-case analysis, far from being hidden from the public, is included in a public record--the license application.

Brandt, however, conceded that the amount of plutonium-239 expected to go to Ward Valley could be higher than was estimated in the environmental impact report.

Boxer and other Ward Valley opponents said Brandt's comments only deepen their mistrust.

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