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Plant Operators Oppose Bill on Radioactive Waste

Legislation: Veto is likely for measure that would halt sending of materials to local landfills.


The commercial operators of California's nuclear power plants have lined up against a bill pending on Gov. Gray Davis' desk that would kill their ability to send low-level radioactive waste to local landfills.

The bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature with bipartisan support, now probably faces a veto, according to the office of state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), its co-author.

Opponents of the bill include Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, which own the only two working nuclear power plants in California.

A Davis spokesman said the governor had not yet taken a position on the Romero bill. He has until the end of the month to decide whether to sign it into law.

According to a Romero consultant, Alan Gordon, the governor is likely to veto it because the senator refused to amend the bill as the Davis administration wished. The amendment would have allowed some of the waste to go to landfills not licensed to handle the material.

If the legislation is vetoed, the state would have to promulgate new rules for the deregulation of radioactive waste.

All radioactive waste except for spent reactor fuel is classified as low level. The classification can include highly toxic, long-lived material, such as plutonium, strontium and cesium.

Besides material from nuclear power plants, low-level waste includes material from biotechnology companies, research labs, hospitals and military installations.

Under regulations promulgated by Davis in November--but struck down by a court in May and again in August--a variety of low-level waste could have gone to dumps and metal recyclers.

Under the old regulations, waste powerful enough to produce the equivalent of several hundred chest X-rays over a person's lifetime would have been eligible to go to ordinary dumps.

In Southern California, a Davis veto could make it possible for low-level radioactive waste now being stripped from a mothballed generator at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station just south of San Clemente to be deposited in town dumps.

However, an Edison spokesman emphasized that the company has pledged to send any waste from that generator with detectable radiation to facilities in Utah and South Carolina that are licensed to handle nuclear waste.

"We cannot amplify enough that we made a constant decision with Unit 1, that if we can measure it as being radioactive, we're going to send it to a licensed facility," said Ray Golden.

Golden said the company plans to press Davis to veto the bill.

"We believe the bill is a bad law, the reason being that we don't think it's based on good science and think it's inconsistent with existing expert opinion," he said. "There are already existing regulations that strictly spell out disposal of low-level radioactive waste."

PG&E officials could not be reached for comment.

San Onofre has two other working generators that are scheduled to be decommissioned in 2022. A PG&E plant in Central California, Diablo Canyon, also has two nuclear generators scheduled to go off line in less than two decades.

The eventual disposition of low-level radioactive waste from these four generators is unknown, and made more uncertain because there are only two facilities in the country where California can send low-level nuclear waste. One is scheduled to stop taking it in 2008, and the other is expected to eventually run out of room.

Romero, who said she has not heard personally from Davis' office, remained hopeful. "It ain't over till the fat lady sings--that's how I look at it," she said.

"Ultimately, I hope that, when the administration does evaluate the merits of this bill, [officials will] weigh the health risks we are trying to [minimize] as a priority over any corporate interest represented by PG&E and Edison," Romero said.

"PG&E and Edison are powerful. They have tremendous influence, but I hope that at the end, the administration will evaluate that this bill protects children."

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