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Archive for Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Nebraska must find $141 M for nuke dump settlement

Kansas sides against compact in lawsuit

August 10, 2004

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— Now that Nebraska has agreed to pay $141 million for blocking efforts to build a regional low-level radioactive waste dump within its borders, lawmakers have to find the money.

"I have strong hope that we don't have to raise taxes -- that we can absorb it some way," said Sen. Roger Wehrbein, of Plattsmouth, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Nebraska is in the middle of an ongoing budget crisis and lawmakers will use the legislative session that begins in January to find the money.

"It won't be easy, but at least it will be behind us," Wehrbein said.

The other members of the Central Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact -- Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana -- voted 3-1 Monday to accept the settlement in their case against Nebraska. Kansas voted against the settlement, and Nebraska could not vote.

The settlement ended a lawsuit in which U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Lincoln ruled that former Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, now a U.S. senator, engaged in a politically motivated and orchestrated plot to keep the dump from being built in Nebraska. Kopf ordered Nebraska to pay $151 million.

Nebraska agreed Monday to drop its appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gov. Mike Johanns said Monday the economy -- and Nebraska's tax revenues -- were improving.

"I do believe I can deliver a budget not requesting a tax increase to fund this," he said.

Johanns stressed that the compact originally called for Nebraska to be responsible for the entire $151 million judgment, plus interest, bringing the total obligation to $207 million.

No obligation to have dump

The compact also had insisted that Nebraska was still obligated to be host to a nuclear waste dump, and that Nebraska would not be allowed to use the facility, Johanns said.

Under the settlement, Nebraska will not be obligated to allow a dump in the state.

"Considering the potential downside of this, this is a good settlement for the state," Johanns said.

Under terms of the settlement, Nebraska has the option of making four annual payments of $38.5 million starting next year. With interest, that would bring the total amount paid to $154 million.

But the amount Nebraska pays could be reduced to $130 million if the compact and Nebraska successfully negotiate access for their waste at a proposed site in Texas.

The Texas Legislature approved a bill last year that allows for the licensing of two private waste disposal facilities.

Earlier, Nebraska offered to pay Texas a flat fee of $25 million to take the compact's low-level radioactive waste, plus $5 million to cover any unforeseen expenses for storing the waste.

The Nebraska dump was to have been built in the northeast part of the state and take waste from the compact.

Nebraska officials argued that they didn't license the dump because of concerns about possible pollution and a high water table at the proposed site -- a process that Kopf ruled Nelson tainted.

Re-election issue

Nelson was traveling overseas on Monday and could not be reached for comment.

His chief of staff, Tim Becker, said he was sure the settlement would be an issue in Nelson's re-election bid in 2006, especially if Johanns runs against him as expected.

"It has been a political issue -- I suspect it will continue to be a political issue," Becker said.

The dispute over the Nebraska waste site had its genesis in 1970, when Nevada, South Carolina and Washington grew tired of accepting low-level radioactive waste from the rest of the country.

As a result, Congress told the rest of the states in 1980 to build their own dumps or join regional groups to dispose of the waste, which includes contaminated tools and clothing from nuclear power plants, hospitals and research centers.

Nebraska joined the Central Interstate compact, which voted in 1987 to put its waste in Nebraska. The fight began soon after, with both sides wrangling in court on several issues.

No compact has yet built a dump.

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