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Nuclear Waste Protested in Rockies

January 12, 2000

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) _ Tatiana Maxwell was once taken by stroller to protest missile silos growing like mushrooms across the prairie.

``We were a fringe family,″ she recalled. ``We were thought of as communists and kooks.″

With her own kids now in strollers, Mrs. Maxwell has a new target: a proposed nuclear waste incinerator that would be built 100 miles upwind from Jackson, the 13,000-foot Tetons and Yellowstone National Park, the nation’s oldest.

Mrs. Maxwell and others fear that toxic particles from the eastern Idaho incinerator will waft into Wyoming and lace the land and water with toxic PCBs and radiation.

``It’s mostly mother’s instinct that it’s not good for children or other living things,″ said Mrs. Maxwell, who is pregnant with her fourth child.

Mrs. Maxwell, along with Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and the Sierra Club, have sought an injunction that would block the $1.2 billion project near Idaho Falls, Idaho.

In some respects, this is a tale of two cities: Jackson, a mountain enclave of wealthy transplants and second-home owners that thrives on tourism, and middle-class Idaho Falls, which has lived with radioactive waste nearby for decades.

``I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve never seen anything different than anyone else with industry like this,″ said Ralph Steele, a commissioner for Idaho’s Bonneville County. ``There’ve been some accidents, but that’s to be expected.″

Cal Ozaki, the project’s deputy general manager, and many of the plant’s supporters who live on its doorstep, say fears like Mrs. Maxwell’s are overblown.

``I have a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old, and if I thought that there was anything that could harm their health or the environment, I wouldn’t be doing this,″ he said.

At the core of the controversy is 130,000 cubic yards of waste _ equivalent to about 31 football fields 3 feet deep _ being housed at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Half of the waste is supposed to go to the underground facility outside Carlsbad, N.M., the nation’s only long-term storage site for radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy has contracted with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. to build an $876 million facility at the site that will compact up to 90 percent of the storage-bound waste and burn the rest. Burning is considered necessary because some waste is too dangerous to ship or too laden with PCBs to be stored at Carlsbad.

Opponents say the government plans to allow about one metric ton of plutonium to be burned _ ``approximately 166 times the amount of plutonium contained in the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II,″ according to the lawsuit.

``The plutonium incinerator threatens to dump airborne radioactive and hazardous wastes over Jackson, Wyo., and such national treasures as Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area,″ the lawsuit states.

For the most part, Idaho residents have been conspicuously quiet on the issue, except to lash out at warnings that the incinerator could contaminate the potato crop.

``I am confident in technology,″ said Fred Sica, Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce director. ``What we’re really talking about here is that we’re providing a service to the rest of the country in a very safe and manageable way.″

The fight has been brewing for some time. The anti-incinerator movement was born last summer in the scenic Jackson Hole region of northwest Wyoming, where celebrities like Harrison Ford have built second homes.

Opponents have the legal services of Jackson attorney Gerry Spence, a charismatic Wyoming native famous for his victory over nuclear giant Kerr-McGee in the Karen Silkwood whistleblower case.

Spence said Idaho residents have made a deal that could cost them their health.

``It’s a sad exchange, to exchange jobs and money and profit for the potential danger involved in the case, for lives and sickness and cancer and the loss of property,″ he said.

While some of the plaintiffs have suggested changing the laws on transporting nuclear waste and burning PCBs, British Nuclear spokeswoman Ann Reidesel said it’s not that simple.

``It’s important to look at the whole picture and make sure we are not changing laws to make things more lax to solve a current situation, and to keep in mind that the laws were put in place to make things safer,″ she said.

The opponents claim the government broke several laws in approving the project and failed to adequately notify Wyoming residents who live downwind.

``If in fact this incinerator were to go ahead and people were to realize that there were particles in the air that are extremely hazardous, why would they choose to come here?″ asked Berte Hirschfield, president of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free. ``I think there would be a mass exodus.″

According to a 1995 court settlement, the government must complete the processing plant by December 2002. Construction could begin in March if Idaho issues the final permits on time.

Mrs. Maxwell hopes the burning never begins.

``As a society, we did make all this waste and we do have to do something with it,″ she said. ``But there is no indication from any sources outside the DOE that incineration is an intelligent thing to do.″