Government deems building insecure, radioactive waste goes under tents

By Mark Sherman, The Associated Press
Friday June 07, 2002

WASHINGTON – The federal government spent $62 million on a building to store and treat low-level radioactive waste at a California nuclear weapons laboratory, then decided the structure wasn’t secure enough. 

So where is the waste kept now? Under tents. 

Hundreds of bright yellow, 55-gallon drums are stacked under the tents outside the building at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, east of San Francisco. 

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, the area’s congresswoman, is incredulous. 

“You’re not trying to tell me that between the building and a tent, the tent wins?” asked Tauscher, a Democrat. “In a post-Sept. 11 environment, you’ve got to say to yourself, ’Let’s find a way to get that stuff in the building.”’ 

The barrels hold liquid and solid hazardous wastes, as well as articles of clothing that became contaminated through exposure to highly radioactive materials, said Energy Department spokesman Joe Davis. 

The waste, said Davis, “is stored safely and securely.” 

Terrorists’ use of airplanes against the World Trade Center and Pentagon have raised concerns about the ability of nuclear plants and storage facilities to survive similar attacks. 

Highly radioactive materials — spent fuel from nuclear reactors and other materials that emit dangerously high levels of radiation for thousands of years — are stored in other buildings at Livermore, Energy Department officials said. 

Low-level wastes, like those being kept outside under tents, typically decay in a matter of years. 

The Livermore building has been substantially complete since last June, but Tauscher said the Energy Department has refused to let Livermore workers begin using it. Tauscher said since January she has been given different explanations for why the building remains unused. 

Initially, she said she was told the building could not withstand a direct hit from an airplane. 

Then Jessie Roberson, the assistant energy secretary for environmental management, wrote Tauscher in May that the construction plans did not sufficiently assess potential hazards and risks — and what to do about problems that may arise. 

A third explanation came from Davis, the Energy Department’s chief spokesman in Washington, to whom calls to the laboratory were referred. 

“The building is still under construction,” Davis said. “If you use the facility to store waste, you can’t continue with the construction. We’re not going to compromise safety and security just to get it operating quicker.” 

Tauscher said no one, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, told her construction was ongoing. 

“We can’t even get a straight answer out of them,” said Tauscher, the top Democrat on a House Armed Services Committee panel that oversees the Energy Department’s reorganization, focusing on nuclear weapons programs. 

Under the department’s latest plan for the low-level waste, barrels of it would be stored inside beginning in September. Treatment wouldn’t begin until August of next year. 

The Energy Department has been trying since the mid-1980s to build a new decontamination and treatment facility at Livermore for low-level waste, fighting off objections from area residents.