Cancer's research involving radioactive materials will be able to continue uninterrupted because a Texas shipyard is willing to handle waste products nobody else will touch.
Three licensed U.S. dumps for low-level radioactive waste all closed their doors to liquid shipment this year. That left the nation's medical research institutions with nowhere to send their spent radioactive chemicals, and most had very little storage space. Many feared they would have to halt cancer research programs that use radioactive isotopes to track drug behavior in animal tissues.
Then, however, word spread among nuclear waste shippers that Todd Shipyards Corp. of Galveston, Tex. is still accepting and stockpiling the tiny test tube-like vials of medical waste. The rush was on.
"I expect by the end of next week, the shipments in here will have doubled," said Charles W. Hathway, manager of Todd's research and technical division, in a telephone interview. He is not getting 250 drums (55-gallon size) every week, about one-fifth of all research waste output, which totals 60,000 drums annually.
"Maybe we'll end up getting it all, but I'd be surprized at that," Hathway said. "We're just holding it as we normally would and when one of the sites opens up we'll send it to them for burial."
At the site on Pelican Island, one mile off the Gulf Coast, the glass vials are crushed and compressed and their liquid is heated to evaporate as much of it was possible, Hathway said. This concentrates the radioactivity in a smaller amount of material. For example, Hathway said, 500 drums of incoming waste can be reduced to 50 drums of processed material, "and that's not a very big pile." At that weekly rate, Hathway figured he has space to hold a year's worth of waste.
By that time, at least one of the three licensed dumps ougth to be open to receive whatever Hathway has accumulated.
Gov. Dixy Lee Ray of Washington said here Tuesday, after meeting with Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie, that she may reopen her state's site near Richland in a matter of days if federal officials crack down on sloppy shipping practices.
But Gov. Robert List of Nevada said his state's dump at Beatty will remain closed permanently.
The remaining site is in South Carolina, where Gov. Dick Riley last spring banned chemicals that carry radioactive material -- but not the radioactive isotopes themselves -- from the dump at Barnwell.
The three governors discussed the problem for two hours Tuesday with Hendrie.
Hendrie said he made technical assistance available to help Washington inspect shipments at its borders, and Ray said that "if all these things fall into place, then I think we can say we will make the site available, particularly for nuclear medicine wastes."
Ray and Riley also appeared on Capitol Hill yesterday where they reemphasized their position that they are tired of having their states used as repositories for all the nation's radioactive waste.
Meanwhile the effect has been "a ban on all our nuclear waste," said Philip Lorio, chief radiation safety officer, at Columbia University in New York City, which produces 4,000 gallons of radioactive medical waste a year.
Columbia and other research institutions, which used to send 80 percent of their waste to Barnwell, began shipping it instead to the dumps near Richland, Wash., and Reno, Nev.
But Gov. Ray closed the Washington dump Oct. 4, citing violations of shipping rules. And Gov. List shut down the last remaining site Oct. 23 after five barrels of waste chemicals were found buried outside the fence.
Lorio said the entire matter provides an opportunity for the NRC to change its rule on what level of radioactivity requires special disposal."A lot of what we're sending out is less radioactive than the granite in Grand Central Station" in New York City, he said. "It's ridiculous to have us travel 3,000 miles to dump a garbage pail of that stuff.