Settlement ends no-win situation for Nebraska

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

From the start, the storage of low-level radioactive waste has been a problem for all Americans. It was doubly worse for Nebraska, which turned out to be the fall guy for five mid-American states stretching from Louisiana through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

Given those boundaries, we should have guessed at the start who would be picked as the host state. With the least population and wide expanses of land, Nebraska was regarded by the more southern states as the logical location to dispose of waste.

Hence, in 1987 Nebraska was chosen as the host site, setting off a 17-year controversy. The dispute was finally resolved Monday when Gov. Mike Johanns announced that Nebraska had agreed to pay a settlement of $140.5 million to the other members of the waste compact. As part of the settlement, the compact agreed that Nebraska would no longer be a candidate for a disposal site.

Whew! It's good to have this long, bitter battle behind us. Although $140.5 million is a considerable amount of money, Gov. Johanns said it may be possible to pay off the settlement without raising taxes. The hope that this can be done is based upon a recent step-up in state tax collections.

So what about the waste, which, by the way, is low level, meaning it comes from hospitals, academic research projects and utilities? In the news conference announcing the agreement Monday, state officials said Nebraska would continue to negotiate with Texas to be the disposal site. That's a logical plan, because Texas is already committed to developing a disposal site for itself and other states.

Now that the issue is resolved with the compact, Nebraska can move on to other pressing issues, such as ethanol incentive funding and other forms of economic development. With many of our rural counties losing population, these are urgent concerns for the state.

But, as we move on, it won't do us any good to place blame for the low-level radioactive waste fiasco. Nebraska was in a no-win situation from the start. As soon as we were named the host state, we were in a bind. What we found out in the years to follow was that, while more rural than urban, Nebraska does not have the vast remote sections of land -- lacking in human habitation -- needed to be a host site for radioactive waste.

Remote areas are what is needed for a waste site for radioactive materials, whether they be low-level or high-level. Hopefully, Texas has such a place. So, you would think, do such western states as Nevada and Utah. But not Nebraska.

It can be argued that low-level waste disposal techniques are far advanced, and there is little chance for harm to humans. But, with their opposition, Nebraskans have spoken. We don't want to take the risk, no matter how slight it might be. Nebraskans were in a bind, being forced to do something we didn't want to do. Therefore, under the circumstances, the state made the best deal it could. We will have to pay $140.5 million -- or more with interest -- but we no longer have the responsibility of storing low-level radioactive waste.

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