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Keep on Truckin'

Owens won't protest decreased safety for nuke shipments through Springs


Jane Norton, GOP candidate for Lt. Governor
  • Jane Norton, GOP candidate for Lt. Governor

Gov. Bill Owens was beaming at last week's campaign rally in downtown Colorado Springs as Jane Norton, his newly announced running mate in November's election, lavished praise on his environmental record.

"Our state is cleaner and greener since Bill Owens became our governor," proclaimed Norton, director of Colorado's Department of Public Health and the Environment, to a crowd of Republican faithful.

Just weeks earlier, however, Owens had refused to join fellow Western governors in protesting a federal proposal that would relax safety standards for nuclear-waste shipments that regularly roll through the Springs on Interstate 25, less than a mile from where Norton was speaking.

And he had done so at the recommendation of the state Health Department headed by Norton.

Six other Western governors five of them Republicans have protested the proposed relaxation of federal regulations, which could affect thousands of nuclear-waste shipments coming through the Springs over the next three decades. In a July 29 letter to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the governors of Arizona, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming termed the proposal "flawed and "unacceptable."

Owens, however, thought it "premature" to join the protest, said a spokesman, Dan Hopkins. And the Health Department's expert on the issue says that while relaxing safety standards may be a bad idea, the language in the protest letter was too "inflammatory" for Colorado to sign.

Trucked to WIPP

The shipments in question contain transuranic waste, which is mostly clothing, tools, equipment and debris contaminated with plutonium. The waste comes from federal nuclear installations all over the country and is trucked to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a nuclear-waste dump near Carlsbad, N.M., where it is buried.

An estimated 28,000 shipments, from the mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant near Denver and from sites in Idaho and Washington state, are scheduled to come through Colorado Springs over a 35-year period. More than 300 truckloads from Rocky Flats have already rolled through town since WIPP opened in 1999.

So far, the waste has been shipped in specially designed containers that feature double walls, intended to prevent a release of radiation in the event of an accident.

Now, however, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proposed allowing the use of single-wall containers, arguing that this would free up space to send more waste with each shipment.

The idea has drawn fire from many states in the West, where the vast majority of shipments will take place, and also from the Environmental Evaluation Group, a government-funded panel of scientists that reviews WIPP issues.

The group of scientists has calculated that with current containers, the expected number of shipping accidents causing release of radiation is less than one. But with single-wall containers, that number could jump to 12, the group estimates. A worst-case accident involving single-wall containers could lead to between 10 and 30 cancer deaths from radiation exposure, the group figures.

"We do not believe it wise to increase the probability of a release for the sake of relatively minor economic benefits," the group wrote in a letter to the NRC. "Even a minor release is likely to result in extensive cleanup costs, delays in project shipping, possible societal costs from transportation or other economic disruptions."

The NRC, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

The political push

Last month, the 21-member Western Governors Association drafted a letter to the NRC that would have protested the single-containment proposal. But despite weeks of negotiations, association members couldn't agree on the letter's final language.

The states that expressed reservations about signing the letter were California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Texas and Washington.

Colorado, Idaho and Washington are home to more than three-quarters of the waste destined for WIPP. Their anxiousness to get rid of the waste might explain their refusal to sign, speculates Joe Strolin, a representative for the Nevada governors' office.

Strolin noted that in Colorado, "there's a political push to get the transuranic waste out of Rocky Flats."

But Hopkins, Owens' spokesman, says the governor acted on advice from the Health Department, whose officials felt it was too soon to take a position because "there had not been adequate research." The governor is still "waiting for the final information from the Health Department on what the state's position should be," Hopkins added.

The recommendation not to sign came from Tammy Ottmer, the Health Department's WIPP specialist.

Ottmer says she shares other states' concerns about abandoning double-wall containers. "They're doing the trick, so why mess up a good thing?" Ottmer said.

However, she says the WGA's draft letter overemphasized concerns about terrorists targeting shipments.

The final letter signed by six governors after the WGA failed to reach consensus charges that the proposed regulatory change "is inconsistent with our nation's commitment to reducing vulnerabilities to emerging terrorist threats." Since Sept. 11, the government should aim for "stricter, rather than more relaxed, safety standards for radioactive materials," the letter states.

Such language might fuel terrorist fears that run counter to Colorado's interest in keeping shipments rolling, Ottmer suggests.

"We are in heightened awareness these days, but how you deal with that and how you relate that to the public is very critical," she said. "If you want to start a stampede, you can do it. ... [But] if you let terrorism override everything, can you still get business done?"

Ottmer says she suggested that the Western governors ask for an extension of the official period to comment on the single-containment proposal, which was set to expire July 29, so that they might have more time to reach an agreement.

Other states, however, insisted on making comments by July 29.

In the end, the deadline expired without Colorado submitting any comment. The state did, however, file its own request to extend the comment period, which the NRC has said it will consider.

The NRC plans to make a final decision on the matter by July 2003.

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