OLYMPIA — Activists submitted more than 280,000 signatures yesterday supporting an initiative to block the federal government from sending more radioactive waste to the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington until all the existing waste is cleaned up.
"Protect our state from being used as the nation's radioactive waste dump," urged Gerald Pollet, the initiative's sponsor.
That simple message helped the campaign gather many more than the required 197,734 voter signatures. But some political leaders say the initiative oversimplifies a complicated problem.
Hanford contains the burial grounds for the equivalent of about 75,000 55-gallon barrels of radioactive waste. The material can take thousands of years or more to decay to safe levels. The state and federal governments recently agreed on a long-term schedule for cleaning up the waste.
In the meantime, the federal government started shipping radioactive and hazardous waste from other sites to Hanford for packaging before sending the material to a New Mexico plant for disposal. Hanford currently accepts and disposes of lower-level waste from other nuclear plants around the country.
"Urgent action is needed to protect our families from the risks of more than 70,000 truckloads of radioactive waste on our roads, 70,000 potentially deadly accidents, and 70,000 rolling 'dirty bombs' which are terrorist targets," said Pollet, executive director of a Hanford watchdog group called Heart of America Northwest.
The measure, tentatively called I-297, would also end the dumping of radioactive waste in unlined dirt trenches. Sponsors said they used both paid and volunteer signature-gatherers to get the 280,000 names.
As the initiative sponsors stacked up boxes of signatures, the 4-year-old twin sons of one supporter held hand-lettered signs saying "Clean up your mess" and "It's not polite to pollute."
Critics of the initiative say those simple messages clash with the complicated reality of solving the nation's radioactive-waste problem.
"You can say, 'Yeah, well that makes sense,' but there are so many more implications. You've got to look at the issue of the greater good," said state Sen. Pat Hale, R-Kennewick, whose district includes the Hanford nuclear reservation.
She said the initiative smacks of "NIMBY" — Not In My Back Yard. Radioactive waste has to go somewhere, Hale said: "It certainly has to be put in a safe place, and Hanford is safer than any of those other sites."
A U.S. Department of Energy spokeswoman declined to comment on the initiative yesterday, saying the agency would wait to see whether the measure gets on the ballot.
The Hanford measure was filed as an initiative to the Legislature, which means Hale and her colleagues will get first crack at it. If they reject or ignore the initiative, the public will vote on it in November. Lawmakers could also create an alternative measure that would go on the ballot side-by-side with the original initiative. Or they could choose to pass the initiative into law during the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 12. Both supporters and critics of the measure agree that's an unlikely option.
"We've got a lot of issues we need to deal with that are a lot more pressing," Hale said.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company