A nuclear clock is ticking for many states across the country. In less than a year, the only low-level radioactive waste facility that accepts all comers will shut its doors to outsiders - leaving perhaps 20 or more states, most of them in the East, without any place to dispose of such material.
Fortunately, Utah is one of the states that has a place to send low-level radioactive waste. Those that don't have such access are going to find themselves in deep trouble.The low-level waste involves radioactive tracers used in myriad drugs and diagnostic work in hospitals, as well as university work.
Because of strict rules governing the purchase, handling use and disposal of such tracers, places that don't have access to waste facilities may not be able to use such materials. According to one Utah expert, the inability to use radioactive tracers could "set back medicine 20 years" in those places.
A storage facility at Barnwell, S.C., serves the eight-state Southeast Compact and also accepts low-level waste from states that are not part of the compact.
That practice will end June 30, 1994. A year later, Barnwell will close its doors for good and a new facility will be opened in North Carolina. But its use will be restricted to compact members - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.
This will not affect Utah, which is a member of the Northwest Compact along with Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii. The compact members store their low-level radioactive waste at Richland, Wash. Several other compacts cover an additional 10 states, with new storage facilities expected to come on-line by 1996 at the latest.
But those states left out in the cold may have only themselves to blame. In 1980, the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act required states to develop their own disposal facilities either individually or regionally.
Yet in the subsequent 13 years, no new facilities have been built. Some are in the process of being constructed, but many states have not even started. This is due partly to the resistance of citizens to anything labeled a radioactive waste site. No matter where such facilities are proposed, people object to their pres-ence.
Some confusion exists about radioactive waste sites because there are several kinds. There is high-level radioactive waste from nuclear plants. Finding a national storage site for such waste is a years-long struggle that still hasn't been decided. Nobody wants it, including Utah.
There is low-level waste cited in this editorial, the kind used in medicine and university research. And there is very low-level waste like the contaminated tailings moved from Salt Lake County into Utah's west desert.
Sooner or later, the question of what to do with nuclear waste of every kind has to be squarely faced and some answers found. For those states that have procrastinated on low-level waste for the past 13 years, time already has about run out.