Waste disposal problem may lead to research cuts

By Cara Miller

Arizona Daily Wildcat

With 216 barrels of low-level radioactive waste and no place to dump it, the UA stands to lose millions of dollars in research grants within the next four years.

According to Melvin Young, associate director of the University of Arizona Radiation Control Office, if a proposed dump site in Ward Valley, Calif. is not federally approved within the next few years, the UA will have to curtail biomedical research.

“If this site is not approved and they decide to abandon this, $60 million dollars will go down the rathole,” Young said.

Approval of the site is pending a court appeal from a conglomeration of environmental groups to stop the transfer from federal to state ownership.

“Ward Valley is encountering so much objection because nuclear power plants will also be sending their waste, and we get penalized in the process,” Young said.

Young said the waste, used in low-level nuclear experiments is more of a regulatory problem than a health problem. The waste includes animal bodies, pipets, gloves and animal bedding.

But members of the Student Environmental Action Coalition said the UA is also responsible for the waste.

“The UA has had it coming to them. They’ve put all their eggs in the basket of research instead of the basket of teaching and the gamble may come back at them in a serious way,” SEAC field organizer David Hodges said.

Ward Valley is particularly important to UA because for more than a year, all waste has been stored in a facility north of the facilities management compound at the Arizona Health Sciences Center.

Young said that there is a relatively large amount of waste, but the radioactivity level is low.

“We survey the area weekly in order to document that there are no exposure hazards to anyone walking by,” Young said. “It’s like rinse water for the most part.”

He said the radioactivity of these products decays within 120 days and the waste is then properly disposed of, according to whether it is a liquid or solid matter.

Recent estimates state it would cost the university $730,000 to rid the campus of the current waste.

This fiscal year, the budget has only allowed for $140,000. Young said the earliest they would be able to dispose of it would be 1996, as the result of cost and the time it takes for the radioactivity to decay.

Young said if the Ward Valley site opens, the cost will reduce to $600,000 per year.

Research vice president Michael Cusanovich said the UA is already looking into alternative methods to dispose of the waste until a court decision is made.

“We just bought a new compactor and are currently upgrading the existing storage facilities,” Cusanovich said. “Everybody is making due for the time being.”

“Solutions definitely need to be found, but building a dump is not the solution,” Hodges said. “If they can’t find a place to store it and technology does not exist to safely store it, then it doesn’t need to be done.”

In addition to losing potential research money, Cusanovich is afraid of losing valuable medical developments.

Much of the research done on the UA campus is used in the development of treatments for cancer and heart attacks, Cusanovich said.

“Not only is there a researc impact, but a medical impact on the health and welfare of the state,” he said. “You can’t assign dollars to it; it’s just human health.”

Young said litigation will continue for another nine months, and he expects a favorable decision in April 1995.

“However, the handwriting is on the wall that if the site is abandoned, we will have to give consideration to curtailing research and risk losing millions of dollars,” Young said.

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