Averting the Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump Disaster

For many years, CBG was deeply involved in the effort to prevent the construction of a nuclear waste dump in the Ward Valley area of California, near the Colorado River. Ultimately, through the hard work of CBG and other organizations, the proposed facility was scraped by government officials, a victory for the environment.

July 21, 1992: Radioactive Waste Dump Supporters “Cowardly” in Suit to Block Hearing on Safety of Proposed Dump, Critics Charge

July 31, 1992Intervention Motions Filed to Oppose Dump Contractor’s Attempt to Prevent Hearing on Proposed Nuclear Waste Site

October 15, 1992: Illinois Nuclear Dump Project Rejected After Adjudicatory Hearing

November 21, 1992: Wilson Administration Decision to Join Waste Generators and Dump Operator in Suit to Stop Promised Hearing Outrages Dump Opponents

April 11, 1993: UCSF Search for Local Storage Place for Radioactive Wastes is Due to Its Refusal to Accept Liability in Case It’s Wastes Leak at Existing Disposal Facility

August 11, 1993: Committee to Bridge the Gap Response to Sec. Babbitt’s Demand that Gov. Wilson Hold Promised Ward Valley Adjudicatory Hearing

September 16, 1993: CBG’s Dan Hirsch Makes Statement Regarding Governor Wilson’s Announcement That He Is Issuing the Ward Valley License Today, Will Hold a Hearing Later

October 15, 1993: Groups Sue to Stop Ward Valley Radioactive Waste Facility

November 24, 1993: Sec. Babbitt Suspends Ward Valley Land Transfer

June 22, 1994: Louisiana Senator Introduces Legislation to Force Transfer Land for California Radioactive Waste Dump Before Completion of Safety Reviews

May 11, 1995: Statement of Daniel Hirsch, President, Committee to Bridge the Gap, on The National Academy of Sciences Ward Valley Report

May 31, 1995: Statement by Daniel Hirsch, President, Committee to Bridge the Gap Regarding Clinton Administration’s Decision on Ward Valley Nuclear Waste Dump

October 31, 1995: Secret Government Data Revealed Showing Radioactive Wastes Leaking at US Ecology Nevada Nuclear Dump

February 1, 1996: Committee to Bridge the Gap Releases Letter to Interior Department and Report on Contamination at Beatty, Nevada, Nuclear Dump

March 28, 2000: Court of Federal Claims Throws Out US Ecology Ward Valley Suit

July 13, 2000: Secretary Richardson Suspends Release of Materials from DOE Facilities

November 14, 2000: U.S. Appeals Court Rejects Ward Valley Radioactive Waste Dump Appeal

In the late 1980s, the nuclear industry proposed to dump vast quantities of long-lived radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants in unlined trenches at Ward Valley, less than 20 miles from the Colorado River, the main water source for much of the Southwest. Thus, working in coalition with the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, and Colorado River Indian Tribes, as well as Physicians for Social Responsibility, Greenpeace, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Americans for Safe Future, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and others, we began an eventually successful fight to block the proposal, which consumed much of our energy for a dozen years.

A nuclear reactor produces 50 years of power, but 500,000 years of waste. That radioactive garbage needs to be isolated from the human environment for periods far longer than any human institution has existed—indeed, far longer than human civilization has existed. Some of the radioactive waste is irradiated fuel, but much is stuff like irradiated reactor components as well as filters which concentrate radionuclides that leak out of the fuel. It contains the same radionuclides (e.g., plutonium-239, strontium-90, cesium-137) as the irradiated fuel, with the same toxicity and half-life. It is that material that was proposed to be dumped at Ward Valley, on land important to the nearby Native American tribes.

Much of Bridge the Gap’s work consisted of pouring over tens of thousands of pages of technical documents to find the critical information buried at the back. Here, US Ecology, with a history of operating leaking nuclear dumpsites elsewhere, asserted that no rainfall could penetrate the 100 feet from the surface to the waste trenches in less than about 10,000 years and thus couldn’t carry radioactivity down into the aquifer beneath. Near the back of the tenth or so volume of the license application, however, we found a brief acknowledgment that tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, had already been found that far down. Tritium, which forms radioactive water molecules, has a half-life of 12.3 years and is primarily produced by nuclear weapons tests. If tritium was found 100 feet beneath the surface of Ward Valley, it had to have infiltrated there within the last few decades as there were no atom bomb tests before 1945, and given the half-life, couldn’t have come from anything that wasn’t recent.

Thus radioactivity, if dumped in unlined trenches at Ward Valley, could quickly contaminate the aquifer below. We also identified several hydrologic pathways by which that aquifer apparently drained into nearby groundwater basins that led to the Colorado River. Therefore, dumping radioactive waste at Ward Valley could result in contaminating that extraordinarily important water source, for eons. We issued a detailed technical report on these problems by a panel including Dr. Robert Cornog, co-discoverer of tritium.

Based on a single sentence in the EIS for the project, we learned of, and then obtained and made public, a critical analysis by US Geologic Survey scientists raising similar points. We brought their initial review to the attention of Senator Boxer, who interceded with the Secretary of Interior to allow the authors, led by a courageous geologist named Dr. Howard Wilshire, to perform a more detailed study. That work raised very serious questions about the safety of the project, which triggered the establishment of a National Academy of Sciences panel to review the Wilshire findings. The NAS panel, however, was assured by another USGS scientist that measurements he had conducted at a twin radioactive waste dump in Beatty, Nevada showed no migration could occur for ten thousand years.

Dr. Joe Lyou, CBG’s Executive Director for the decade of the 1990s, now President of the Coalition for Clean Air, and who did yeoman’s work at CBG in the Ward Valley fight, called  the USGS scientist. Over a period of a couple of hours Joe painfully extracted from him the admission that his study had actually found that the Nevada dumpsite had already failed and radioactivity leaked offsite. The news revelation resulted in the Ward Valley proposal, which was on the verge of approval, being pulled back.

Governor Pete Wilson was pushing aggressively for the dump. Dan Hirsch testified at the confirmation hearing of Wilson’s nominee to be Secretary of Health and Welfare, Russ Gould, expressing concern that Gould was refusing to allow an evidentiary hearing on these safety issues before approving the project. The Senate Rules Committee, in an extraordinary move, voted unanimously that Gould should meet with Hirsch that evening to see if Gould would not now agree to the evidentiary hearing. They negotiated for hours unsuccessfully, and then in a dramatic hearing the next morning at which both testified, Gould eventually committed to the hearing and was confirmed. Governor Wilson a few weeks later broke the commitment, which led the federal government to refuse to transfer the land until such a hearing was held and new tritium tests conducted.

After many more such struggles–including critical work by Susan Clark and Catherine Lincoln (now CBG Board Member and Executive Director, respectively), and litigation led by Roger Carrick, Dan Selmi, Fran Layton, and Fred Woocher–the project was dropped. CBG helped write state legislation that barred radioactive waste from ever being dumped at Ward Valley and set strict design criteria (e.g., prohibiting unlined trenches) for any such project were one to ever be proposed for elsewhere in the state. It was an epic struggle, one that was won; and the Colorado River and those who depend on it were protected from this large radioactive threat.