Second Thought: Wednesday,May 29, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Low-Level Waste, High-Level Danger

Legislators are about to drop an extremely hot potato on Texans.

By SUSYBELLE GOSSLEE

The United States just went to war to remove the danger of weapons of mass destruction that Iraq was said to possess. Now the Texas Legislature wants to transport an arsenal of nuclear waste through Texas. How can I not get involved when legislators are working to turn Texas into a nuclear dumpsite? How can I not get involved when my children and other Texas citizens will be threatened by potentially lethal nuclear waste being transported on highways through our cities and the countryside? That’s what is contemplated by HB 1567, which is close to becoming law.

Most frightening of all, a small group of legislators changed the bill in ways that increase the dangers many times beyond what was originally approved by either the Texas House or Senate. The conference committee’s version of the bill, which is now on its way to the governor, would allow the dumping of hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of waste, some of it so dangerous that, if unshielded, it could kill someone standing three feet away in 20 minutes. No container has yet been developed to contain the radioactive dangers of that kind of waste in the long term. Moreover, this bill will allow the waste to be buried in trenches, where it could pollute the groundwater, rather than require the waste to be stored in aboveground containers, which could at least be checked for leaks.

I am getting involved in this issue, because democracy works when citizens are informed and active in the political decision-making process. Nuclear waste dumped in Texas is one of those critical issues on which legislators need to hear from the voters, not just the lobbyists.

The conference report on HB 1567 — that is, the compromise version agreed upon by representatives of the Texas House and Senate — has now been approved by both legislative chambers. It will allow “low-level” nuclear waste to be brought from around the country, from federal weapons programs as well as nuclear reactors, to a dump in some place like West Texas. “Low-level” nuclear waste does not mean low-level hazard to Texans. It means harmful radioactive waste and other long-lasting and carcinogenic elements that last hundreds of thousands of years. Radioactive waste will be stockpiled in one site with no specific security requirements for protection from terrorists or anyone else. Furthermore, no safe containers exist for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

The conference committee ignored the versions of the bill passed by their full houses. Instead, panel members rewrote several key sections of the bill, contrary to the rules that govern conference committees. The report raised the limits on the hottest, most concentrated types of radioactive waste (classes B and C) to levels 120 times larger than the Senate had approved. The Senate version of the bill had capped the amount of Class B and Class C waste that could be dumped at 5,000 cubic yards; the conference committee would make that 600,000 cubic yards of the most dangerous radioactive waste. The conference report also deleted a House requirement that these classes of waste be disposed of in aboveground vaults, which are easier to monitor and repackage to prevent leaks.

Since Class B and Class C radioactive waste is too dangerous to be dumped at the low-level radioactive waste disposal site in Utah, our state is poised to become the nation’s only dumping ground for such material.

This bill was offered under the guise of preventing terrorism and strengthening homeland security. In Texas, 96 percent of our radioactive waste is already at secured power plants. The other 4 percent is chiefly composed of low-level medical, university, and industrial waste that will degrade in 60 days and can be safely disposed of in landfills.

It is unthinkable to transport nuclear waste cross-country, making the trucks moving targets for an attack. This is especially true of nuclear weapons waste from the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Navy, much of which has been mixed with toxic and hazardous chemicals. If there is an accident on Texas highways with this waste, not only will Texans be endangered, but our taxpayers could also end up shouldering costs of the cleanup.

HB 1567 does not include nearly enough citizen participation in decision-making about this dump. Fort Worth Weekly has reported on the political contributions made by those who want the state contract to manage the dumpsite (“The Glow of the Green,” May 15, 2003). Their money has paid for 16 lobbyists and campaign contributions to the governor and legislators (www.tpj.org/reports/perry/ and www.tpj.org/reports/simmons).

All the issues raised by this bill are vital to Texas citizens. Making democracy work is also vital. Please call Gov. Rick Perry at 512-463-2000 to urge him to veto the bill. Even if the governor signs it, the issue is not dead. Almost certainly, the next legislative session will have to deal with nuclear waste again.

Voters must become informed and get involved in politics; after all, politics is getting involved with voters.

Susybelle Gosslee is the president of the League of Women Voters of Dallas



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