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Livermore Lab to the Rescue. . . Next for Ward Valley? : Babbit breaks a promise, but a bad deal may not yet be a done deal

June 11, 1995

Throughout the long struggle over the siting of a low-level radioactive waste dump at Ward Valley, only 20 miles from the Colorado River, the source of much of the region's drinking water, The Times' principal concern has been that legitimate safety matters should be given an adequate public hearing. The Wilson Administration did not give them that hearing. The Clinton Administration then promised to provide the missing margin of safety. Unfortunately, the Administration broke its word when, on May 31, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt announced that, without a promised evidentiary hearing, he would transfer to the state the federal land slated for the dump. Attempting to justify his action, Babbitt said: "Initially I thought the best way to air the concerns that had been raised . . . was in an additional public hearing . . . . Eventually, I became convinced that the National Academy of Sciences was best equipped to shed light on the highly technical questions that were being raised." The secretary was referring to an NAS study issued on May 11, but to quote from the study itself: "The NAS did not evaluate the suitability of the Ward Valley site for a low-level radioactive waste facility. NAS conclusions should therefore not be interpreted as either an endorsement or a condemnation of the site."

Fortunately for California, this bad deal may not yet be quite a done deal. Babbitt has stated that his transfer of the Ward Valley site to California "will be carried out upon satisfactory completion of . . . further discussions [with Gov. Pete Wilson] and certain necessary procedural steps . . . ." These include testing to determine whether or not radioactivity can migrate from the dump through the thick, dry "unsaturated zone" to Colorado-linked ground water. The NAS doubts it can, but admits that only further testing can answer this question.

The NAS study, going beyond scientific advice to make a political recommendation, has said that construction of the dump need not be postponed until after the testing has been done. California Sen. Barbara Boxer thinks the testing should be done before the land is transferred. We heartily agree. She wrote Babbitt last Thursday that the University of California's world-class Lawrence Livermore Laboratory stands ready and willing do the needed work, which it estimates "would take approximately four months and cost in the range of $150,000."

Babbitt should seize this opportunity. After 10 years and $50 million, four months and $150,000 is little to ask when the stakes are so extraordinarily high. If the lab's testing shows no migration, the key objection to the dump will have been met, and we can all breathe easier.

If the test is done only during or after construction of the dump, and if at that point migration is found to be occurring, the secretary should create a legally binding mechanism by which even then the dump will be required to cease construction or, as the case may be, to stop accepting waste.

Babbitt wants California to make a commitment that the Ward Valley facility will accept no more radioactivity than the 5.2 million curies and 5.5 million cubic feet it is licensed to accept. The "binding character of the commitments and limits" is among the matters he intends to discuss with Wilson, who has greeted this news with anger. In view of a negative court judgment on the Wilson Administration's performance in licensing the Ward Valley facility, only a legally enforceable commitment should be regarded as adequate protection.

Finally, capping the high-risk radioactive waste elements, especially plutonium, at the levels stated in the Environmental Impact Review/Statement should be made a third legally binding condition for the land transfer.

None of these measures is extreme. The call for testing arises from the work of the NAS itself, which Babbitt has taken as grounds for his action. The others presume that a dump will soon be accepting waste and merely limit its intake. The producers of radioactive waste have their legitimate need for waste disposal, but the citizens of California have an at least equal need to have their water supply prudently protected.

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