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Watkins Encounters Resistance to Easing Nuclear Waste Storage Problem

October 6, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Energy Secretary James D. Watkins is encountering stiff resistance to his plan to store radioactive waste from a Colorado nuclear weapons plant in several states until a permanent dump is completed in 1990 or 1991.

Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., was meeting today with Watkins’ top adviser on waste, Leo Duffy, to reinforce his state’s opposition to accepting waste at the Hanford nuclear weapons site near Richland, which already is the most polluted arms plant in the nation.

Nevada Gov. Bob Miller said he had tried unsuccessfully Thursday to reach Watkins by telephone to tell him: ″We wouldn’t accept this waste under these circumstances.″

Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., said in a statement today, ″Don’t even ask″ Nevada to take any of the waste.

In congressional testimony Thursday, Watkins said he anticipated a tough battle.

″People are going to say, ’Not in MY state,‴ Watkins said.

The retired admiral suggested he would propose in a private meeting next week with state governors that seven states share the waste-storage burden in the interest of keeping the crucial Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant operating.

Watkins told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee a permanent waste repository in New Mexico would not be ready to open by March, when Colorado’s unilaterally imposed waste storage limit is expected to be reached.

Thus, temporary storage sites must be found by March 1 or Rocky Flats could be forced to close. The 364-acre plant near Denver is a vital link in the nation’s nuclear arms complex because it is the only maker of plutonium triggers for warheads.

Watkins said he had not decided which states to approach. The most likely candidates include Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada and Washington, which have some of the department’s main weapons facilities. The two other nearest states with nuclear weapons sites are Texas and California.

Radioactive waste equivalent to 49 boxcar loads - about 4,900 cubic yards - would have to find temporary storage over the next two years, he said. The amount could be even greater if further delays are encountered in completing the Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, N.M.

The New Mexico repository was scheduled to open a year ago but has been hampered by a series of environmental, technical and regulatory problems.

Watkins said he expected the problem of finding a temporary storage site for Rocky Flats waste to become ″a very contentious issue.″

Eddie Binder, a spokesman for New Mexico Gov. Garrey Carruthers, said the governor’s position had not changed. ″There’s no way I’ll accept any other waste than what is already in this state for temporary storage,″ Carruthers said two weeks ago.

The waste is contaminated with plutonium, which remains radioactive for 240,000 years, and is generated at the Rocky Flats weapons plant. The plant recovers plutonium from retired nuclear weapons and reprocesses it to make triggers for new ones.

Idaho had been storing part of the Rocky Flats waste, but Gov. Cecil Andrus closed his state’s borders Sept. 1 to further shipments to protest the Energy Department’s failure to open the $800 million Waste Isolation Pilot Project.

Watkins said he had received a letter from Washington Gov. Booth Gardner that said, in essence, ″Don’t look my way.″ He added later, however, that he had received ″some informal indications″ from unspecified states that they might consider dropping their opposition if a multi-state agreement was reached to spread the waste burden.

On a related subject, an Energy Department study released Thursday concluded that Rocky Flats, which is under investigation by the FBI for possible criminal violation of environmental laws, poses no imminent threat to public health.

The report raised doubts, however, about the accuracy of measured concentrations of plutonium in the air surrounding the complex. It said the air samplers were out-of-date, prone to breakdowns and not properly located.

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