Nuclear Waste Is Good for You
Imagine the town drunk leading a group of high school students on a taxpayer-funded tour of local bars, while he tries to convince the students that a new bar would be good for their neighborhood, too. A version of that tour is underway in far West Texas. But instead of a saloon, the state of Texas isselling a nuclear dump to the public school students of Sierra Blanca.
Sierra Blanca, with a population of 700, was chosen in 1991 as the state's site for a "low-level" nuclear waste dump. Although it's technically classified as low-level, the waste destined for Sierra Blanca would include highly radioactive, and highly toxic, substances -- including plutonium, which remains radioactive for tens of thousands of years. If approved, the dump will accept radioactive waste, mostly from nuclear power plants in Texas and possibly from other states, including Maine and Vermont.
The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Authority, the state agency promoting the Sierra Blanca dump, has led groups of Sierra Blanca students on three tours of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Glen Rose, Texas. The Authority has also taken another group of students on a tour of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an unopened but fully constructed federal nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Authority Deputy General Manager Lee Mathews describes the trips as "informational experiences."
"We think it's important for the students to get an idea of what an operating nuclear facility looks like. Kids and grown-ups often think that nuclear waste is some green liquid. We like to show them that it's not like that at all," Mathews said.
Critics of the nuclear tours claim the Authority is trying to indoctrinate the students, to convince them that a nuclear waste dump in their town would be safe and beneficial. El Pasoan Bob Geyer serves on the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund board of directors, and is an outspoken critic of the nuclear tours. "The Authority is incompetent, but they've been successful at brainwashing these young folks," says Geyer. "They never tell them about the well-established link between radiation and cancer. I've never seen a state agency stoop so low. Governor Bush and the Authority should be held accountable for what the Authority is doing to these kids."
While the Authority has concentrated on student "informational experiences" during the past four years, the first tour it funded in l993 was a group of ten adults from Sierra Blanca, who visited the operating nuclear waste dump in Barnwell, South Carolina. Sierra Blanca businessman and dump opponent Bill Addington went on that trip, and was disturbed by what he saw. "They led us right down into the trenches without any protective clothing, or mentioning anything about the risk of radiation exposure," Addington said. He was also angered by the wasteful spending of taxpayers' money. "The Authority spared no expense in trying to win us over, including lavish meals and fancy hotels." Addington later filed a complaint with the state comptroller's office, which conducted a preliminary audit of the trip.
In his letter to Comptroller John Sharp (December 15, 1993), Addington accused the Authority of a "gross misuse of state funds," including the cost of a lavish dinner in a fancy restaurant, where "most everyone in the group ordered numerous mixed drinks." Addington added, "My family has spent tens of thousands of dollars in opposing what we consider an unfair political siting of the nuclear cemetery in our home.... We consider that the state is using polarizing tactics, trying to 'buy' residents. This trip is but another example."
Comptroller Sharp notified the Authority on February 15, 1994, that some small mistakes had been committed by the Authority on the trip, and "when combined with the duplicate airfare payment, the consistent payment of tips, and allowing a private vendor to pay for your employee's meal expenses, serious concerns about your agency's internal control and accounting practices must be raised and explored."
By 1994, the Authority had shifted its focus to the Sierra Blanca School. The school houses about 150 students in twelve grades. Like the town itself, the student body is about 65 percent Mexican-American, and also like the general population of Sierra Blanca, many of the students live below the official poverty line. Over the years, the school has been a major recipient of dump money. To date, the Sierra Blanca I.S.D. has received over $256,000 from the state's nuclear dump fund, for improvements that include a new cafeteria and bleachers on the field used by the Sierra Blanca Vaqueros' six-man football team. The school has also received scholarship money from Merco Joint Venture, the company that has been dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of New York City sewage sludge on 90,000 acres in Sierra Blanca for the past five years.
School Superintendent Lewis Rogers is a fervent supporter of the nuclear dump. At a public hearing held in Sierra Blanca in August 1996, Rogers (who graduated from high school in Marfa and worked at Van Horn before he was hired by Sierra Blanca) spoke in favor of the dump -- despite the fact that the majority of Sierra Blanca residents spoke against the project.
The Authority and the school have regularly signed financial contracts confirming their relationship. An August 1994 contract (in which the Authority provided $9,900 for the school) shows how the school relinquished its role as an educator and instead became the Authority's pupil: "Contractor [the school] will participate in educational activities for the Sierra Blanca Independent School District, including teacher workshops, field trips, continuing education related to nuclear technology, low-level waste, or waste disposal." The contract designated science teacher Winnie Tatum, another ardent dump supporter, as the project director. The contract also guarantees that the Authority, and not the school district, has the final say on who runs the public relations operation the school is conducting for the Authority: "The Authority reserves the right to approve any substitution of the Project Director."
According to a spokesperson for the Authority, tours are arranged only when a representative of the school district requests them. Bob Geyer disputes that claim. "The Authority is completely manipulating the school for their own purposes. Flying kids six hundred miles to visit a nuclear power plant is not your ordinary field trip," Geyer said. Sixty-six-year-old María Méndez lives out in the desert a few miles east of Sierra Blanca. Active in the local Catholic Church, Méndez is also one of the leaders in the anti-dump movement. She claims the tours are "a sneaky way to get the students to approve of the dump. The kids love to travel, so the Authority takes advantage of that. Then, of course, the Authority lies to them, claiming there's no danger. With so many leaking dumps elsewhere, I'm sure people in town will end up getting exposed to radiation."
The first group of Sierra Blanca students to take a nuclear tour flew on Southwest Airlines to Dallas in January 1994. The students began with a tour of the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant, which is run by Texas Utilities (TU). If the Sierra Blanca project is approved, TU will be one of the dump's biggest beneficiaries. The students also visited Southwestern Medical Center, which is run by the University of Texas, another major dump proponent, although less than 1 percent of the waste destined for the dump will come from medical sources.
After the trip, Winnie Tatum had her students prepare a report on their excursion. Her letter (January 1, 1994) to Rick Jacobi, General Manager for the Authority, suggests that the outcome was not as successful as she and the Authority had hoped. She wrote, "I want to thank you for making the funds available so that this trip was possible. The students have a better understanding of what low-level waste is as a result of their trip. There are still some misconceptions the students have. This became apparent as I read their papers. I hope to clarify these." (Documents cited in this story have been obtained under the Texas Open Records Act.)
The next trip to Comanche Peak took place in February 1995. The Authority's public information officer, Adriana Rhames, took the lead as usual in organizing the trip. On February 13, Rhames sent a memo to Winnie Tatum, writing that Authority employee Rubén Alvarado would be traveling to Sierra Blanca to "help you select some of the students." According to the memo, Rhames also invited Eddie Selig, director of Advocates for Responsible Disposal in Texas (ARDT). Selig, a lobbyist and public relations man, lives in Austin and does not work for the state. The "advocates," who pay his salary and underwrite his lobbying and public relations organization, are the waste generators who will send their refuse to Sierra Blanca if the dump is approved. An ARDT handout names its major funders from the nuclear power industry: Houston Lighting & Power, Maine Yankee, TU Electric, and Vermont Yankee.
On February 28, eighteen high school juniors and seniors accompanied by Winnie Tatum and several other teachers flew to Dallas, where they were joined by Rhames (a former TV news reporter), and other Authority staff members. They toured the Comanche Peak nuclear power plant in Glen Rose and then traveled to Dallas, where they stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel. On the second day, the group toured Southwestern Medical Center and then flew back to El Paso. The Authority picked up the $7,280 tab for the trip.
Rosalynn Huddleston, now twenty and studying at the University of Texas at El Paso, was one of the Sierra Blanca students who traveled to Dallas. "The Authority really goes all out on the tour and shows their money," says Huddleston. "We asked a lot of tough questions, but they had an answer for everything. In my opinion," Huddleston said, "the school is for the waste dump because they're being bought off."
One week after Huddleston traveled to Dallas, a second group of eighth-grade students traveled by land to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to tour the WIPP nuclear waste dump. Rhames again handled all travel, accommodations, and financial details of the trip. The students were taken 2,000 feet underground, to see the tunnels where nuclear waste will be buried if the WIPP site opens.
Rhames was impressed with the huge public affairs department at WIPP, which also does extensive work with local schools, including a "shadowing program," that sends students to the WIPP site to spend time with individual WIPP employees who serve as student "mentors." A few days after the tour, Rhames wrote the WIPP project: "I must compliment you on an impressive public information program. I hope to eventually build ours up to a similar level."
Up to this point the Authority's nuclear tours had gone largely unnoticed by dump opponents. However, the Authority's obvious pride in the tours it was arranging changed that. In April 1995, half of the content of the Authority's public news bulletin was made up of students' reactions to the tours. One eighth grader wrote, "I thought this waste was going to be like toxic, green slime, and really harmful. But it is not all that dangerous or not as dangerous as I thought. They gave us a tour of the site, it was really entertaining. I think that it is cool that we are going to get a low-level site out here."
Geyer and other dump opponents began organizing a campaign to stop the tours. They raised the issue of the students' safety. "When the students visited the unopened WIPP they were issued radiation badges [to measure radiation exposure]," says Geyer, noting that there is no waste yet stored in the WIPP site. "However, when the students toured the fully operating Comanche Peak nuclear plant, they weren't issued badges. Figure that one out."
It was also discovered that the students visited the low-level waste storage area at Comanche Peak, and that the group included a student who was several months pregnant (the Authority says they were unaware of this). According to Dr. John Cobb, a physician who serves on the Colorado Governor's Task Force on the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility near Denver, "Visitors to a nuclear power plant should be issued radiation badges. They should be asked if anyone is pregnant, and if so, that person shouldn't be allowed to get anywhere near nuclear waste. Any dose is more than you want, especially for an unborn fetus."
Had they done their homework, teachers and administrators at Sierra Blanca I.S.D. might have learned that some teachers are not convinced that taking students to visit nuclear plants is a safe practice. In 1993, in San Luis Obispo, California, teacher Kathy DiPeri repeatedly refused to lead groups of school children on tours of the marine lab exhibit at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. DiPeri, who was teaching environmental education for the county school system, was fired for her stand. "I did some research and found that unplanned radiation releases regularly take place at Diablo Canyon," says DiPeri. "No way was I going to lead these kids anywhere near there." After she was fired, DiPeri filed suit and won, forcing the county to reinstate her.
The Authority's Deputy General Manager Lee Mathews doesn't think students from Sierra Blanca were ever put in any danger. "We obviously are not taking the students into areas where there would be a real risk," says Mathews. "You can get around barrels of low-level waste with no particular hazard."
Paul Gunter of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service doesn't agree, and says that there are real risks involved in touring any nuclear plant. "We're concerned that visiting a plant could result in contamination, so we always take a Geiger counter," says Gunter. "Contamination can occur even outside of the plant, and it occurs all too frequently." Gunter has been closely following a lawsuit brought by a group of University of Maine students who were contaminated by radioactivity during a visit to the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant.
An Associated Press article published in the Bangor Daily News on November 10, 1996 reported, "Five chemistry students who were reportedly exposed to radioactive gas during a tour of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant sued the plant's operators Thursday in federal court." According to the article, "The lawsuit that seeks $5.5 million in damages contends that Maine Yankee officials knew before the tour that work was going to be undertaken that could lead to releases of radioactive gas. It also contends that Maine Yankee officials tried to cover up the severity of the exposure, and that a plant consultant told students afterward that radiation "may be necessary and good for you ... like a vitamin."
Maine Yankee has since shut down the plant, which will be dismantled and might be buried a few miles east of downtown Sierra Blanca -- if the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission approves the Authority's permit application and Congress approves the Texas-Maine-Vermont nuclear waste compact.
Waste from Comanche Peak will also be buried on what had been the Faskin Ranch at Sierra Blanca, so it's no surprise that the Texas Utilities nuclear plant is a regular stop for the Authority's school bus. Sierra Blanca School's most recent tour of Comanche Peak took place in March 1997. Thirteen juniors and seniors from Winnie Tatum's chemistry class and one seventh grader made the trip. Adult chaperones were Tatum, Superintendent Lewis Rogers, history teacher Charles Mustain, parent Billie Dell French, and teacher/football coach Leo Caraveo.
French, parent of the lone seventh grader on the trip, previously edited the now-defunct Southwest Sun News in Sierra Blanca, which supported the nuclear dump. (The paper, which began publishing in 1994, was owned in part by Bill Love, who as County Judge was such an advocate of the Merco sewage sludge dump that some of his own constituents began to refer to him as Judge Sludge.) Caraveo is an outspoken proponent of the dump, and according to reports by Houston's KHOU-TV, receives funding from ARDT. Eddie Selig of ARDT again went on the tour, as did Adriana Rhames and another Authority employee.
Rhames' post-trip memo (February 19, 1997) summarized the group's activities. "The Sierra Blanca School group and the two Authority employees were transported by chartered bus to Comanche Peak where they were again met by Mr. Schmitt [of Texas Utilities] and Mr. Selig. The tour of Comanche Peak included a detailed film and slide presentation plus time for questions and answers, a tour of the low-level radioactive waste storage area, and lunch.... After the tour, the group returned to Dallas to check in at the hotel, then departed for dinner where they were again met by Mr. Selig and Mr. Schmitt."
Dinner was a major social outing for the kids: an evening at Medieval Times restaurant, which included a four-course dinner and a two-hour jousting tournament between six knights on horseback. The Authority picked up the $603 dinner tab (about $28 each). After dinner the group returned to the Embassy Suites Hotel ($129 per room).
The next day the group followed the typical routine of touring U.T.'s Southwestern Medical Center and then had lunch at Planet Hollywood before flying back to El Paso. Teacher Mustain commented a couple of weeks later in a letter sent to the Authority, "I was thankful for the many lessons that the students learned from the many activities.... Eight of our students had never before flown on an airplane!"
After returning to Sierra Blanca, Tatum had her students prepare reports for the Authority, which must have been pleased with
"We had been misled about how dangerous low-level waste actually is. This trip opened my eyes to a whole new world," wrote one student.
"At first I had my doubts, but now I am more for it than against. The suites were so cool. The food was great and Medieval Times was fantastic," wrote another.
"Going on this trip made me realize that this low-level waste isn't really dangerous to our town," a student wrote.
While one student wrote that at the Embassy Suites hotel, "I felt like royalty," she was not so impressed with Planet Hollywood:
"I expected it to be really nice, but when we got there I realized it was just an overrated overpriced restaurant.... The food was way too expensive. If we go back next year I would rather not go to Planet Hollywood."
A few students were still not completely sold on their town's future as a radioactive waste dumpsite. One skeptic wrote in her report, "I came here very impressed and assured that this will be the safest way to dispose of the waste. But this doesn't change my feeling on the possibility of human error that can occur and the chain effect (whether large or small) that we the town of Sierra Blanca will have to take or endure."
Another young woman wrote, "Southwest Medical Center was interesting.... Dr. Michael Devous was probably my favorite though.... I liked him also because he was the only person, after four years of hearing about this stuff, that actually told about the bad things that nuclear waste can do." This same student also commented about touring the waste storage area at
Comanche Peak. "In the waste collection building we got to see some of the canisters where the waste is stored. We also got to see and smell resin. It is cool. It looks like dirt kind of except gold, but it doesn't really feel like anything. It does however smell like fish, really bad."
The May 1997 edition of the Sierra Blanca School newsletter ran an editorial on the Comanche Peak tour. "'I am now for the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Site,' a student, who was previously against the dump, said after the Comanche Peak trip." The editorial demonstrated that students understand the relationship between a poor school district in a poor community and a well-funded state agency: "It is true that the [Authority] is helping to better our community by buying things many people here can use. Sierra Blanca is receiving several things that it could not get before because of financial constraints."
María Méndez is not a science teacher, but she does recognize the potential hazards of radiation, and in particular the risks it represents for children. "Anything could happen on these tours. Just look at what took place at Three Mile Island. They weren't expecting that disaster," says Méndez. "We need to stop the tours and the dump altogether, especially for the kids since they're more vulnerable than adults. I'm afraid for my grandkids and I'm doing all I can to stop this madness."
It's unlikely that the tours -- or at least the promotional work the school district does for the Authority and the nuclear waste industry -- will end any time soon. In September the Authority gave the Sierra Blanca School another $5,000, guaranteeing that "Nuclear Waste 101" will be one of the best-funded courses in the curriculum in an impoverished school district in West Texas.
Richard Boren is an environmental activist and freelance writer who divides his time between El Paso and Tucson.