Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc. has suspended its operations. Governor James Hunt
has said the state will not increase its financial commitment to the project.
North Carolina Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Authority executive director
John Mac Millan has announced his resignation -- effective August 31.
Everywhere you turn the death knell is being sounded for Wake County's radioactive waste dump that was initially scheduled to go on line in 1993.
On the surface it appears that, after more than $90 million in expenditures, key figures in the site-selection and licensing review process are raising the white flag of surrender.
Questionable science, a geologically problematic site, and a skeptical public appear to have brought the project to the verge of defeat.
But opponents of the Wake site, that hugs the Chatham County line, have put victory celebrations on hold, not yet convinced they've seen the last of the project that would bring seven states' radioactive waste to the Triangle for at least 20 years.
"We don't think this project is dead," said Jim Warren, director of the North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN), an organization that has closely monitored the site-selection and licensing review process. "Not with the money and power that's behind it. The vampire is in his coffin, but without a stake through his heart, he'll be back."
Warren speaks for many opponents when he says that election-year politics may have merely sent the project into hibernation as Governor Hunt gears up for his re-election battle with Republican Robin Hayes. Keeping a potentially volatile issue on the back burner is simply smart politics.
WASTE GENERATORS STEP IN
Not to be forgotten are the huge financial resources and power base of those who want to see the Wake site open for business serving the Southeast Compact, the seven-state group that will send waste to the dump.
Utilities, which generate about 97 percent of the Southeast Compact's total radioactivity, have the most to lose if the Wake site isn't licensed. They are especially anxious to avoid having to accept liability for their waste and are not likely to let the North Carolina process die without a fight.
Gov. Hunt has said no to a Southeast Compact Commission request for additional state funds for the Wake site's licensing review process, but at least one senior legislator, speaking off the record, believes the General Assembly could be compelled to fund the project anyway.
"What the utilities want, the utilities will get," the legislator said.
Another long-time legislator, who would not go on record, said the dump is far from dead.
"As soon as the November election is over, and the dust settles on this administration, you're going to see some major changes in the personalities, and the site is going to move along quickly," he said. "Governor Hunt is going to be very cautious, and he ought to be. He doesn't have to take a hard position now. After the election you will see things rapidly move to closure."
The same source said Hunt will either resurrect the Wake site, or move - possibly by executive order - to put the dump in a small, economically disadvantaged county.
"You just stick it in a county that has very few votes," he said.
Already the utilities have started to circle the wagons in what appears to be a unified effort to see to it the Wake site is licensed. In December utilities representing several states in the Southeast Compact formed the Southeastern Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Utilities Generators Group (SEGG).
SEGG officials claim the new group's purpose includes "coordinating political and legislative activities to be undertaken by its membership." It is clear SEGG has the potential to become a major lobbying force in support of the Wake site.
On August 9, SEGG officials held an unannounced private meeting with in Raleigh with Authority chair Mac Millan, state contractor Eric Lappala, Southeast Compact executive director Kathryn Haynes, and others.
INVESTING IN POLITICAL POWER
As is the case with most large corporations, Carolina Power & Light and Duke Power, the state's two largest radioactive waste generators, have done a thorough job of spreading around their campaign contributions. They are among the top ten donors to half the members of the General Assembly. They give to dozens of other members, and they retain eight lobbyists, including Zeb Alley, who has been consistently rated as the most effective lobbyist in the state.
In addition, CP&L vice president of public affairs R. Michael Jones and Duke Power director of legislative and political activities John W. McAlister sit on the N.C. Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Authority, the state agency responsible for finding a suitable site.
The nuclear waste industry has been particularly generous to the major political players involved in the Wake dump decision, including Gov. Hunt, who has accepted more than $100,000 since 1989.
State Senator Richard Conder, co-chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Low-Level Radioactive Waste, is quick to claim that utility dollars will not sway any vote he may cast regarding the Wake site.
"I'll take anybody's money that wants to give it to me, and I'm going to vote how I please," Conder said. "I'm very proud of that, and that's the way I operate."
According to campaign finance reports from 1989 to 1995, Conder has received $9,200 in contributions from the nuclear waste industry.
AN UNSAFE SITE?
While behind-the-scenes political maneuverings may result in breathing life back into the Wake site, what remains unchanged is the skepticism of numerous scientists - the state's own regulators included - regarding the viability of the Wake site as a long-term, safe option for the permanent disposal of waste, some of which will remain radioactive for centuries.
Geologists and hydrologists with P.M. Brown, Inc., a consulting firm hired by Wake County's Preferred Site Local Advisory Committee, have consistently found that the Wake site is too geologically complex to be licensed.
Because the Wake site's ground-water flow system is "fracture-based," the flow paths - which include at least four fault-lines and millions of fractures - are difficult, if not impossible, to identify.
"The question remains, which fractures are open and to what degree?" P.M. Brown wrote in a June report. "The which and the what are indeterminate at field scale in any real geologic sense. As long as this indetermination exists, the flow system is not monitorable and the site is not suitable for low-level radioactive waste disposal."
In order for the Wake dump to be licensed, the state Division of Radiation Protection (DRP) must be satisfied that the site is safe. DRP head Dayne Brown said state contractors must be able to prove, via a complex modeling process, that no contamination of the area's water supply, beyond regulatory limits, could occur in the future, when the dump's engineered barriers (between the waste and the environment) have deteriorated.
Even those committed to long-term permanent disposal - including DRP's Brown - are not confident the Wake site can meet regulatory safety standards.
The Wake site's complex geology has resulted in lengthy delays and huge cost overruns. Now, contractors have said they'll need at least $27 million more to continue the licensing review process.
By law, regulators must have "reasonable assurance" that unallowable levels of contaminants will never escape the site, releasing deadly radioactivity into the area's water supply, resulting in exposure to humans at higher than "acceptable levels."