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Nuclear Nevada Panhandle’s Bad Dream Becomes Nevada’s Reality BY GARY RASP LATE LAST YEAR, under the deadline pressure of a budget stalemate and the impending Christmas holi days, House and Senate members of a Congressional conference committee worked overtime to radically alter the nation’s nuclear waste management policy. Finally, after more than three days of intense debate that had produced countless unacceptable compromises, conferees agreed to a package of changes they referred to simply as the 1:30 p.m. December 17 House Counter Proposal. A few days later, on December 22, President Reagan signed into law what would go down on the books as the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987. Among other things, that action eliminated nine square miles of Deaf Smith County farmland in the Texas Panhandle from a list of three prospective sites for the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump. A site in eastern Washington, near the Columbia River, was also stricken from the list. The amended legislation directs the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal agency responsible for managing the waste disposal program, to instead focus its attention on a site in southern Nevada at least for now. If for any reason the Nevada site, known as Yucca Mountain, is disqualified, the new law requires DOE to return to Congress for further “instructions.” Nowhere in the Act is the department prohibited from resuming work in Texas or Washington. As a result, officials and activists in those two states remain cautious. “It’s great that Deaf Smith County is off the hook,” said Delbert Devin, former president of the Nuclear Waste Task Force, a consortium of agricultural organizations in the Panhandle. “But I would have been much more relieved if I felt like they’d arrived at a solution.” Congress’s recent action, Devin added, was “pure politics,” a view shared by many who have followed DOE’s program from the beginning. “I think politics were driving the program all along, and it just became more prevalent with the pressure of time Gary Rasp, formerly a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers’ Capitol Bureau in Austin and later a consultant for the Texas Nuclear Waste Programs office, is now living in California. on Congress,” he said. Washington State spokesman Jerry Gilliland said risks to the region’s water table should have discouraged DOE from considering the Hanford site in the first place. Like Devin, Gilliland said the recent policy changes were politically motivated, and as such, are subject to the potential for further changes. “They got Nevada over Nevada’s protest,” he said, “and we’re concerned that it could happen to us as well.” Russell Jim, manager of Nuclear Waste Programs for the Yakima Indian Nation in southern Washington, agreed. “There’s no telling what the whim of Congress might be” if Nevada’s Yucca Mountain site is disqualified, he said. No one knows what will happen if the Nevada site is found unsuitable for a repository or even if deep geologic disposal will continue to be viewed as the best way to deal with nuclear waste. One thing is certain: the problem will not go away. Utilities, including some in Texas, contribute to the problem by producing more and more waste. Just after Texas was passed over for waste storage responsibilities, the state’s first nuclear power plant the South Texas Nuclear Project in Bay City went on line. As the nation’s high-level nuclear waste continues to accumulate, critics contend that Congress has only come up with a political solution to a continuing environmental dilemma. IN THE TEXAS PANHANDLE, farmers and ranchers who make their living off the fertile soil above the Ogallala aquifer are still adjusting to the idea that the issue may have finally gone away. “Everybody’s still kind of in a daze,” said Deaf Smith County resident Georgia Auckerman, former vice president of People Opposed to Wasted Energy Repositories thought that it just wouldn’t do any good to do anything but I think they [DOE] would be out drilling holes right now if we hadn’t taken the bull by the horns.” To help sweeten the pot for Nevada; Congress included a package of “financial incentives” to help offset any negative impacts associated with the program. By signing a Benefits Agreement proposed by Congress in the amended legislation, Nevada would receive $10 million a year until the repository was built. Then, beginning with the first shipment of waste, the payments would jump to $20 million annually. In return, Nevada would have to relinquish many of the rights granted to states under the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act, including judicial review of DOE decisions and the authority to oppose the project on virtually any grounds. To many observers, these incentives amount to nothing short of a bribe. “At this point, we’re not even contemplating entering into a Benefits Agreement, because we would have to give away our rights for oversight,” said Steve Frishman, Technical-Policy Coordinator for Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office. “Under that agreement, we’d end up trading $10 million a year for our safety concerns and you can’t make that kind of a trade.” Frishman’s boss, Bob Loux, said many Nevadans believe that Uncle Sam is picking on them because of the state’s relative lack of political clout in contrast to states such as Texas that have the likes of House Speaker Jim Wright and Senator Lloyd Bentsen to look after their interests. “Nevadans already feel that it’s all-out war,” Loux said. “To many residents, this has nothing to do with nuclear waste, this is the State of Nevada versus the federal government.” Whether the tuff, or compacted volcanic ash, at the Yucca Mountain site in Southern Nevada is suitable for the safe disposal of nuclear waste is a question that will continue to be argued over the next several years. Questions surrounding the way in which the site was selected may be around as long as the waste. This much is clear, however: Congress had to do something to restore public confidence in the beleaguered DOE program. Years of legal challenges from states and Indian tribes, continued pressure from local communities, and what appeared to be an unending escalation of costs had taken their toll. Now, many long-time critics of the program are saying that rather than resolving the problem Congress has further eroded what confidence existed in the program by unraveling the delicate compromise of the original Act and by arbitrarily singling out Nevada. The 1982 Act required DOE to perform a comparative evaluation of three potentially suitable sites after extensive geologic, hydrologic, and geochemical tests were conducted at each location. Simultaneous 14 JUNE 17, 1988