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Judge Rejects State Guidelines on Nuclear Waste Disposal

Health: Jurist nullifies regulations allowing the dumping of low-grade radioactive material in landfills.


A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has nullified recently enacted state regulations that allowed the dumping of low-grade radioactive waste in ordinary landfills.

The court ruling, handed down last week and announced Tuesday, rebuffed state health officials who formulated a rule last year to make it easier and cheaper for companies and institutions to get rid of some nuclear waste.

In her ruling, Judge Gail D. Ohanesian stated that the regulations "will have a significant adverse environmental effect."

In addition, the judge found that, contrary to the claims of state officials, California has authority to pursue more protective standards for radioactive waste disposal, but failed to consider that option--a breach of state law.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the California Federation of Scientists and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Those groups argued that landfills are not engineered to safely accommodate nuclear waste.

In addition, they said that the levels of radioactivity in the waste, though comparatively low, are still enough to cause serious health problems, including cancer, in people exposed to it.

"This is a great victory for protecting the public from unnecessary radiation exposure," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an anti-nuclear group.

"The Davis administration had deregulated the waste, and the court has found it illegal."

Businesses and institutions that generate the radioactive waste now await guidance on what standards state health officials will use to govern cleanup and disposal.

In California, at least half a dozen power plants and laboratory sites are poised for decommissioning, which will generate large volumes of waste that will have to be stored on site or sent out-of-state to facilities licensed to accept the waste.

The cost of disposal in licensed dumps is much higher than the cost of putting the waste in local landfills.

Places where nuclear waste cleanups are underway include Rocketdyne's Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Simi Valley and one reactor at Southern California Edison's San Onofre power plant.

Universities, major hospitals and some biotechnology firms also generate low-level radioactive waste.

Rocketdyne's shipments of nuclear debris to the Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley prompted a public outcry recently.

Whether such disposal practices pose a public health threat has been the subject of intense debate.

Company spokesman Dan Beck said the waste does not put people's health at risk.

"We need to hear from the regulatory agencies on what it [the ruling] means. Then we'll comply with whatever guidelines the state develops," Beck said.

California has been struggling to develop a strategy for radioactive waste disposal.

One remedy pursued by former Gov. Pete Wilson called for building a disposal site at Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert 20 miles from the Colorado River.

However, that plan was blocked by opponents concerned that the waste could make its way into drinking water supplies.

The new regulations were intended to allow some of the waste to be diverted to up to 170 landfills statewide.

"[California's Department of Health Services] has been playing fast and loose with the facts for too long, and the court caught up with them.

"This regulation created a public health threat and an intolerable environmental risk," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles).

Yet the legal ruling tosses California's program for low-level radioactive waste disposal into a quandary.

Romero has introduced a bill that would require low-level radioactive waste be disposed at approved sites only.

The Senate Environmental Quality Committee is scheduled to consider the bill Monday.

The state regulations that the court rejected allowed waste to enter a landfill as long as it averaged no more than 25 millirems of radioactivity per shipment, an exposure equivalent to about 21/2 chest X-rays annually.

But the risk of fatal cancer over the lifetime of a person exposed every year even to 25 millirems is one in 1,000, Hirsch said.

Hirsch maintained that the 25-millirem average could permit someone to receive far higher doses than the average.

Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) has introduced a bill that would require cleanup of contaminated sites to meet the strictest federal standards imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Kuehl said such cleanup standards would make the risk of cancer hundreds of times lower than was the case under the regulation that was struck down.

A spokesman for the state health department declined to comment on the court decision until agency officials had more opportunity to review it.

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