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Forget the Money-- Keep Radiation in Its Place, Gov. Davis

He should defy contributors and sign waste bill.

September 20, 2002|JACK MILES | Jack Miles, a former editorial writer for The Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1996.

Why does the X-ray technician step into a protected control booth before X-raying your broken leg? Why, when your kidney is X-rayed, is the rest of your body shielded by a lead blanket? These precautions are taken because radiation can disrupt the precise and continuous process by which cells in the human body replicate and replace themselves. Radiation can induce copying mistakes, and another name for human cells that make copying mistakes is cancer. In the young, whose cells multiply so rapidly as they grow, or in the vulnerable old, a small mistake can have tragically large consequences.

Because radiation can do this, laws exist to shield the public from exposure to radioactive waste. But the public interest in preserving this protection is chronically in conflict with the private interest of those in possession of large amounts of radioactive waste that they want to dispose of at the lowest cost possible.

This public-private conflict all too frequently becomes a conflict of conscience in the life of a politician who must choose whether to serve the public interest on this issue or the private interest of his campaign contributors.

Gov. Gray Davis, just now, is facing exactly this conflict. Before he became governor, he stood firm against the reckless disposal of radioactive waste. For years, he opposed the licensing of a radioactive waste dump in Ward Valley near Needles, Calif., that--because it was so poorly sited, poorly designed and poorly administered--could easily have contaminated the Colorado River.

Thanks to decades of public activism, the Ward Valley dump proposal has been stopped. But as governor, Davis seems no longer to be the man he was as state controller or lieutenant governor.

Private interests, including Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and Boeing, have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years to his gubernatorial campaigns. But the same firms operate nuclear reactors and thus are major producers of radioactive waste.

Under pressure from them, the Davis administration has abruptly demolished the shield protecting the public from harmful radiation far more effectively than even the Ward Valley dump would have done. In defiance of court orders and behind the back of California's Integrated Waste Management Board, Davis' Department of Health Services has ruled that large quantities of "low-level" (but potentially lethal and long-lived) radioactive waste from decommissioned nuclear power plants and other sources need no longer be treated as nuclear waste at all. Instead, the material may be disposed of as ordinary garbage and even as landfill--that is, not just in dumps but in future building sites.

Perhaps the most appalling among the many disturbing consequences of this redefinition of hazardous waste as nonhazardous is that it legalizes the recycling of radioactive metals from decommissioned reactors. Toys, kitchenware, costume jewelry are all ways in which pieces of old reactors might end up in your house, even in your mouth; the list is endless.

Davis and the Health Services Department do not have all California behind them on this one. Far from it: Lawsuits have slowed the deregulation, and legislation by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) that would bar it has won overwhelming approval in the Legislature.

But will Davis--the new Davis, not the old Davis who fought the good fight for public safety in years past--veto this legislation? His major campaign contributors are confident that he will. The California public can only hope that he remembers who he used to be.

Politics, to be sure, is the art of the possible, and no politician can manage a long-running career without making a few compromises. But just now, Davis is not in the fight of his life. He has a war chest far larger than his gubernatorial campaign opponent's, and his victory over Bill Simon Jr. is all but inevitable. If there were ever a moment when this champion fund-raiser could afford to do the right thing, this would seem to be the moment.

The courts want protection from radioactive waste. The Legislature wants it. The public wants it. Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Sen. Barbara Boxer have spoken out against the deregulation of nuclear waste. Only a few deep-pocketed contributors stand in the way.

In years to come, the Romero bill may seem, for better or worse, the defining moment in one of California's longer political odysseys.

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