Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

Growing Green Laws

Anti-Nuclear Activists Face Off with Nuclear Industry in Ohio

by David Ellison, Northeast Ohio Greens

No accomplishment of our generation—no work of art or science—will matter more to posterity than the steps we take now to keep our radioactive legacy out of the biosphere. We have the technical ingenuity for nuclear guardianship; do we have the moral strength? Do we care enough for future generations? I believe we do.

—Joanna Macy, Nuclear Guardianship Forum on the Responsible Care of Radioactive Materials

From the storage of high-level radioactive irradiated fuel rods in "dry-casks" on the shores of Lake Erie to the plans for a multistate low-level radioactive waste disposal facility to be built in somewhere Ohio, government and industry "solutions" to the problem of storing and managing radioactive wastes are inadequate and dangerous. We have a tremendous responsibility to protect future generations.

The federal Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act provided for the creation of multistate agreements, or "compacts" that would be exempted from interstate commerce regulation and therefore would be allowed to exclude wastes generated outside the compact.

The question of how to safely store these radioactive wastes has remained essentially unanswered for 50 years. Nuclear industry advocates have relied on the assumption that "science" would find a way to neutralize the radioactivity, and in fact, have devised some prohibitively expensive technologies specifically for this purpose. Other technology that would "reprocess" the used, irradiated fuel into new fuel while creating huge mountains of "low-level" waste in the process. To date, the best technology they have come up with is to dig a hole, dump in the waste, and cover the whole thing over with dirt.

In their plans, generators of radioactive waste will continue to generate the stuff, while no publicly acceptable solution for its final disposition exists. Protected by federal policies exempting them from responsibility regarding the long-term care of their waste, the generators have little more on their minds than the most recent profit and loss statement. The eventual transfer of responsibility from generator to taxpayer is written into federal law; even in the case of government incompetence, the people will end up bearing ultimate responsibility.

In the days when several "low-level" nuclear waste dumps were open around the country, the people in states where these dumps operated became unhappy that the whole nation was dumping on them. The federal Low Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) Policy Act was written by a committee chaired by then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and passed into law by Congress. It provided for the creation of multistate agreements, or "compacts," that would be exempted from interstate commerce regulation and therefore would be allowed to exclude wastes generated outside the compact.

Commercial waste disposal facilities that operated outside a compact would be subject to interstate commerce regulation and therefore would be open to any generator of radioactive wastes. This law actually has discouraged the creation of market-driven disposal facilities, because no population with an ecological consciousness would allow a facility that was "open to the public" for unlimited nuclear waste dumping to exist. At the same time, the federal policy mandated that the states take title and responsibility for the wastes as they were "disposed" of in the new compact facilities. The "take title" provision was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, but much of the rest of the LLRW Policy Act still stands.

Ohio joined the Midwest Compact in 1984 and was named the "host" or dump state in 1991. This was after Michigan was expelled from the Compact, unable to site a facility because of likely water contamination issues at the first three sites investigated. At that time, the member groups of the Ohio Greens chose to focus some of their resources on coordinating resistance to the establishment of a multistate nuclear waste dump in Ohio.

The Ohio Greens joined with other concerned citizens to challenge the assumptions made by the federal government in designing this compact scheme. Eventually, a statewide alliance of groups and individuals came together around the possibility of a state-wide initiative to ban the dumping of out-of-state radioactive waste in Ohio. We intend to place a proposed constitutional amendment before the people of Ohio through a citizen's initiative, allowing them to make a decision at the polls about how they want these radioactive wastes stored.

The process of working with the other groups to write language for this initiative proved to be extremely difficult. The likely groups, such as the Public Interest Research Group and Citizen Action, had spent their budgets and best efforts during the legislative process. The Sierra Club continued to reel from the defection of its state lobbyist (a woman named Jane Harf) who became the director of the Ohio Rad Waste Facility Development Authority. The Ohio Environmental Council, an umbrella group of 160 organizations from garden clubs to sports organizations (and including the Greens), changed leadership midstream and exhibited political conservatism consistent with its membership. Elements within the Democratic Party of Ohio sought to use the effort to bolster their environmental record. There was no mutually agreed upon decision-making process, and bitter conflict and misplaced suspicion of motivations ran rampant.

The involvement of scientists who use radioisotopes in testing became a reason to accuse whole groups of being pro-generator. The history of many groups in working closely with the Democratic Party proved to be a barrier to thinking beyond the Democrats. In the end, our lack of resources and the history of failed citizens' initiatives were enough to bring the effort to a low level. Gradually, as the group matured, a process of agreement seeking based on the Green Party of Alaska's model was established to make decisions. Those groups committed to getting the effort off the ground stuck it out and printed the petitions. The longer task of collecting more than 350,000 valid signatures has now begun, and some of the old wounds can start to heal.

We are fighting an uphill battle against an enormously powerful global industry that was born in secrecy and given benefits no other industry was ever granted. Ohio already has more than 800 sites that may be contaminated with radiation. The whole United States has an estimated 45,000 such sites. The compacts in various states have little or no provision for funding the cleanup or containment of these existing sites; they merely establish new dumping grounds. All this comes at the expense of developing democratically controlled, renewable energy technologies. We have up to 10 years before their dump is opened. Given the history of such dump-siting efforts around the country-Ward Valley, Sierra Blanca, Boyd County, Nebraska, and elsewhere-we have a chance that the public will become better informed of the gross corporate privilege given the nuclear industry and that democracy and ecological concern will lead us to a more just future.

For more information contact the Central Ohio Greens at 614-294-8206.

The language we are proposing to the people of Ohio is as follows:

A. Ohio shall not serve as a host state or a site for storage or disposal of radioactive wastes from outside the State of Ohio, including wastes whose radioactivity is produced and used outside of Ohio.

[Connecticut and New Jersey have a Compact Agreement which allows neither state to dump on the other. This arrangement allows for the exemption from Interstate Commerce challenges and does not require one state to bear the burdens of the other. The Midwest Compact Commission will have to threaten to kick us out like they did Michigan, or they will have to propose amendments to the agreement that require each state to take care of its own wastes.]

B. In order to protect the people's right to a healthful and safe environment free from radioactive contamination, it is the policy of the State of Ohio that radioactive wastes must be safely stored and disposed of in such a manner as to prevent any contamination of air, soil or water.

[The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows "acceptable" leakage, but why should nuclear wastes, "low" or "high" level, be stored in any other way than to prevent contamination of the environment?]

C. Radioactive wastes resulting from medical diagnosis or treatment or biological or earth science research activities conducted within Ohio may be stored in licensed disposal facilities which Ohio has the authority to regulate and which comply with Paragraph "B" of this amendment.

[The most common argument used in opposition to fighting "low-level" waste is the claim that "little Johnnie won't be able to get his medical treatments" if we are successful.]

D. The financial responsibility for storing and disposing of radioactive wastes shall remain with the generators of the wastes.

[Why should we have to pay, anyway?]

E. In the event that any provision of this amendment is declared by a court to be invalid, such declaration shall not affect the validity of the remaining provisions.

The initiative is in the form of a Constitutional Amendment because the original legislation forming the Compact states, "All state laws and parts of laws. . .are hereby superseded." Thus, no other legislative strategy is easily available to us.

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