Californians Oppose Ward Valley Nuke Dump

by Shannon Hart

Despite solid opposition to the Ward Valley radioactive waste dump, political leaders continue to push for the proposal to dump commercial radioactive waste in shallow, unlined dirt trenches. A recent independent statewide poll confirmed more than three-quarters of California voters strongly oppose the Ward Valley radioactive waste dump only 19 miles from the Colorado River. The independent survey, conducted by the national public policy research firm Decision Resarch, showed 75% of California voters oppose Ward Valley. Californians cite a variety of safety, health, and financial concerns for their opposition to Ward Valley.

"The politicians aren't listening," said Dana Gluckstein, president and founder of Americans for a Safe Future, a public interest organization working to stop Ward Valley. "We, the people, do not want this dump in our backyard or anyone else's backyard. Dumping radioactive waste in shallow, unlined dirt trenches is irresponsible and dangerous. This is Pete Wilson's pet project, not a project of the people."

Currently, Governor Pete Wilson is negotiating with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on conditions for a transfer of land from federal to state jurisdiction so the Ward Valley dump could be built. Although the negotiations have stalled, fully 85% of the voters agree that the land should not be transferred until all final safety tests have been performed, specifically tests for tritium.

Tritium is a byproduct of the atmospheric testing conducted in the 1950s and 60s in neighboring Nevada. Preliminary tests conducted by the dump operator US Ecology for the Environmental Impact Report show the presence of tritium at least 100 feet below the surface, indicating rapid migration of the radioactive nuclide. Because tritium was found so far beneath the desert surface, the National Academy of Sciences (nas) panel reviewing the safety of the site was unable to determine if tritium or any other radioactive materials could migrate and contaminate the aquifer below the proposed dump site and ultimately the Colorado River, the main source for drinking water for nearly 20 million people. The Colorado also provides water for livestock and crop irrigation in the Imperial Valley.

"The risk of eating food grown with radioactive contaiminated water is not science fiction," said Gluckstein. "If this dump leaks as the other US Ecology dumps have leaked, we are all at risk. It is essential that Babbitt and Wilson proceed cautiously and conduct the tritium tests prior to the land transfer."

The nas unanimously called for additional testing, which call Senator Barbara Boxer has echoed, adding that Lawrence Livermore Lab is capable and willing to conduct the additional safety tests before the land transfer to settle the dispute over the risk of radioactive materials migrating from the dump to the Colorado River. Boxer urged Babbitt and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to authorize the testing for tritium "at the earliest possible date" in a letter dated June 8, 1995.

"This is California's opportunity to have an independent, top-notch analysis of the safety of the Ward Valey dump site," Boxer said. "We are dealing with radioactive materials that have half-lives of up to 24,000 years (including plutonium239) and this test can be done in a matter of months. There is no excuse for not taking this cautionary step."

This is an extraordinary opportunity for Wilson and Babbitt to demonstrate their commitment to protecting Californians, our children, our water and our future," Gluckstein added. "An overwhelming majority of citizens agree that the land should not be transferred until the tests are completed and conclusive." "The people are not behind this dump, only the politicians and special interests," said Gluckstein.

Shannon Hart is executive director of Americans for a Safe Future.