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Low-Level Radioactive Waste Headache Looms Again as Landfill Closes : South Carolina: Businesses and hospitals outside eight states will have to store their contaminated items on site. And sooner or later, America will have to decide what to do with its nuclear waste.


SNELLING, S.C. — Among the red clay and pine trees of this rural town lies the only place 39 states could send the low-level radioactive waste their hospitals, power plants and universities create.

That was true until July 1, when Chem-Nuclear Inc.'s Barnwell County landfill closed to all but eight Southeastern states. Businesses and hospitals elsewhere will have to store their waste--such as contaminated tools, clothing, laboratory animals and tissue--on their own premises.

For most, this is not an immediate problem. Costs will go up, though not a lot at first. Wastes will pile up in makeshift sheds and storerooms; hospitals will freeze animals and tissues, as some already do.

And America will continue to grapple with the question of what to do with its nuclear trash.

"We saw no reason to continue to be the nation's dumping ground," said South Carolina House Speaker Bob Sheheen, to explain the state's decision to cut off 31 states from the Barnwell dump.

Barnwell, which has operated since 1971, is one of only two low-level radioactive waste landfills in the nation. The other, in Hanford, Wash., accepts waste from 11 Western states.

For years, the states that served as hosts for radioactive dumps complained that they were bearing the national burden unfairly.

In 1980, Congress told the states to form compacts and build a dozen regional landfills by 1986. In 1985, with no new sites built, lawmakers extended the deadline to 1996.

But South Carolina legislators finally lost patience. Though Barnwell was scheduled to be replaced by a North Carolina site in 1996, South Carolina decided to close it to waste from anywhere but the Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

The states that cannot send to Hanford or Barnwell will be left to their own devices. Most are caught up in court fights or political disputes over where to place the regional dumps; Sheheen says they are "laggards" for failing to build their own disposal sites.

Bill McGavern, a lawyer with the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said Barnwell's closing should remind lawmakers that their states continue to produce the waste. New disposal sites aren't enough; industry must stop creating the waste, he said.

For instance, the DuPont Merck Pharmaceutical Co. in Billerica, Mass., has cut its low-level waste from 300,000 cubic feet a decade ago to 50,000 cubic feet last year. Some is compacted, some burned and some recycled, said Ray Shepard, the plant's director.

Nationwide, about 1.7 million cubic feet of low-level waste was produced in 1992, the last year for which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has figures. It would cover a football field more than 29 feet deep.

The nuclear power industry generates about 35% of the nation's low-level waste, chiefly protective clothing, tools, machinery and filters exposed to radiation. Most of the rest comes from universities with reactors and from industrial processes.

For nuclear power plants, storing more waste shouldn't be much of a problem. They routinely store low-level waste, especially during scheduled maintenance while reactors are being refueled.

Hospitals produce about 1% of the nation's total but are likely to suffer the most from Barnwell's closure, said Dr. Conrad Nagle, chief of nuclear medicine at William Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Mich.

Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies can store some waste until it decays to safe levels. That can take a few days or a few months, depending on the type of radioactive isotope. After that, it can be handled like regular garbage.

Nagle, chairman of a waste generators' consortium, Organizations United for Responsible Low-Level Radioactive Waste Solutions, figures it will be two to six years before hospital administrators begin questioning the cost of working with radioactive material.

"I'm afraid that because institutions will be able to handle the waste temporarily the urgency will be dismissed on the political level," he said.

In New York, some of the 200 institutions that produce waste already have begun storing it in shacks and trailers.

"It means 200 places have to monitored, 200 places that have to be regulated," said Dr. Donald Margouleff, chief of nuclear medicine at North Shore Hospital in New York.

"Money is going to drive this. If it gets too expensive to handle radioactive waste . . . people will have to look at alternatives," he said. "It will impede medical research and medical care."

Those most immediately affected by the cutoff at Barnwell are 59 workers at the dump who will soon be out of work.

After working at the landfill for 12 years, Carol Belshaw, Chem-Nuclear's regulatory affairs coordinator, will be laid off this month.

"I lay the blame completely on some of the legislators who decided we didn't need our jobs anymore," she said.

Another victim will be the state treasury.

The Southeast compact charges states outside the region an additional $220 per cubic foot to dump there, boosting the total disposal fee at Barnwell to $279 per cubic foot. Cut off that flow, and South Carolina will lose an estimated $90 million in fees during the next 18 months.

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