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Nuclear Balancing Act WHEN THEY WERE looking for a place to dump low-level radioactive waste, Sierra Blanca must have seemed like a dandy site in the eyes of the nuclear industry and its acolytes in Austin and Washington, D.C. Located 90 miles southeast of El Paso, Sierra Blanca is in rural Hudspeth County, which had a 1990 population of 2,915, of which two-thirds are Hispanic, and a percapita income of $13,029. Industry and state officials reckoned that impoverished Hudspeth County residents would welcome the promised economic benefits of becoming a nuclear waste dump. They reckoned wrong. Despite local opposition, aggravated by the state approval of a venture to import New York City sewage waste for disposal in Hudspeth County, despite a treaty with Mexico that prohibits placement of any hazardous waste dumps within 60 miles of the Rio Grande, despite the presence of fault lines that pose a threat of earthquakes and underground aquifers that are vital to Mexico, Texas officials have gone full speed ahead with plans for the radioactive waste dump 16 miles from the Rio Grande. The Texas Legislature, which in 1991 ordered the dump placed in Hudspeth County, last year passed SB 1206, which authorized the state’s participation in a low-level radioactive waste disposal compact commission with Maine and Vermont to operate the dump. In mid-August, seeking to allay the public’s fears about nuclear waste while the compact wends its way through Congress, state and federal officials put on a seminar in Austin designed to correct journalists’ views on radiation. Although the U.S. Department of Energy anted up $20,000 to bring in speakers, private Health Physics Society chapters were allowed to charge participants $20 each to cover other costs of the seminar. As might have been forecast by anyone familiar with newsroom operations, very few reporters were willing to pay $20 to spend four hours listening to shills for the nuclear industry tell them that radioactive waste is not dangerous. Jack Krohmer, chairman of the Texas Radiation Advisory Board, set the tone of “Radiation: The Public Depends on You,” when he objected to the use of the word “dump” for what was planned in Sierra Blanca. He told the audience he preferred the term “disposal site.” In Sierra Blanca, “the encapsulation will be immaculate,” although he undermined that assurance with his later statement that “this country has got to stop spending billions of dollars solving nonproblems.” All the scientists on the panels were defenders of the nuclear industry, and other speakers. included Max Boot, a writer for the right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and Reed Irvine, right-wing editor of Accuracy in Media, both of whom teed off on the absent Eileen Welsome, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her series last year in the Albuquerque Tribune on plutonium experiments done without patients’ consent in the late 1940s. Kenneth Mossman, president of the National Health Physics Society and professor of Health Physics at Ariz9na State University, also weighed in on WAlsome’s Pulitzer: “I thought it was a bunch of chicken poop.” He complained, “You don’t read about the nuclear plants that operate correctly.” Bernard Cohen, professor of physics at the University of Pittsburg, said the press grossly exaggerates the dangers of radiation. “You shouldn’t worry so much about low-level radioactive waste,” he said, suggesting that riding bicycles and eating grilled steaks both are more dangerous than living next to a nuclear plant. Still, asked why radioactive wastes are not stored at the places where they are generated, Cohen said low-level radioactive wastes should be disposed in rural areas because “the risks are lower in low-population areas.” Cohen blithely dismissed. estimates of Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman, in Deadly Deceit, that radiation has contributed to millions of deaths in the nuclear era. Cohen also denied that thousands of Soviets died from radiation at Chernobyl. When . Sherry Meddick of Greenpeace, who was diagnosed with cancer six years ago after growing up near a nuclear plant in Southern California, asked how the panelists could dismiss radiation risks, Krohmer, a radiation scientist, noted that he has had six different malignancies but he didn’t blame his career. “Nobody can prove to you that radiation or any other environmental things caused your cancer,” he replied. “There’s so little data on low levels of radiation that we have nothing to base it on.” I half-expected Montgomery Burns of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant from The Simpsons TV show to saunter by. Luckily for balanced reporting, a Border Coalition Against. Radiation Dumping, made up of citizen and environmental groups from Mexico and Texas, brought in scientists with alternative views on nuclear waste disposal to a counter-seminar across the hall. Meddick of Greenpeace noted that the Sierra Blanca site, if built, could end up as the only such radioactive waste dump in the United States, yet a week before the seminar Texas’ two senators “didn’t raise a fin ger to stop what would happenthe dumping -;of Maine and Vermont’s radioactive waste near Sierra Blanca.” Instead a bill to authorize the interstate waste disposal compact was approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee without debate. Marvin Resnikoff, a physicist who has been involved in efforts to fight radioactive waste dumps, said that despite assurances, the shallow land burial of waste containers planned for Sierra Blanca is a primitive technology whose main advantage is the low cost for the private dump operator. Hugh Kaufman, assistant to the EPA’s director of hazardous site control and an adversary of hazardous waste dumps, said the issue boils down to “welfare for very wellto-do companies both in this state and outside this state and…environmental racism.” He added that, when the Governor said the compact with Maine and Vermont protects Texas from being forced to take other states’ waste, “The Governor lied.” The compact, as approved by the Legislature last year and proposed in Congress now, would allow an unelected compact commission appointed by governors of the three states to agree to take waste from any source, including foreign corporations, and transfers liability from the producer to the taxpayer for the disposal of that waste. “There may be some money in it for the state of Texasa few million dollarsbut that’s chump change compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars of liability that will be shared by all the taxpayers,” he said. Roger Mulder, an adviser to Governor Richards on environmental issues, said she still believes the compact protects the state’s interests while taking responsibility for nuclear waste the state produces. The compact limits nuclear waste imports to 20 percent of the volume disposed by the host state. “That is an, absolute, ironclad guarantee to protect Texas,” he said, adding that if a loophole allows dumping from outside the three states in the compact, the next Legislature can close it. Richards cannot expect much support from Hudspeth County in her re-election bid. Said Bill Addington, president of Save Sierra Blanca, “I’m not promoting George Bush, but we have to hold each governor accountable for his or her actions.” After the seminar, Mulder told nuclear dump critics it is not as simple as “holding Richards accountable.” He noted that one of George W. Bush’s supporters is Mike Toomey, a lobbyist for Connecticut, which has offered hundreds of millions of dollars to buy its way into the compact. J.C. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5