updated 8/9/2004 7:24:51 PM ET 2004-08-09T23:24:51

Nebraska will pay $141 million for blocking efforts to build a low-level radioactive waste dump and will be allowed to continue to oppose locating the dump in the state, under the settlement of a lawsuit accepted Monday.

The dump was to have been built in northeastern Nebraska and take waste from Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. Low-level radioactive waste includes contaminated tools and clothing from nuclear power plants, hospitals and research centers.

The Central Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission — representing the five states — voted 3-1 Monday to accept Nebraska’s proposed settlement of the court fight. Kansas voted against and Nebraska could not vote.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf in Lincoln ruled in 2002 that former Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson, now a U.S. senator, engaged in a politically motivated plot to keep the regional dump from being built in Nebraska. State officials had argued they did not license the dump because of concerns about possible pollution and a high water table at the proposed site.

Kopf ordered Nebraska to pay $151 million in damages plus interest, but did not address the issue of where the dump should be placed. Nebraska agreed Monday to drop its appeal of that decision.

The dispute had its genesis in 1970, when Nevada, South Carolina and Washington state grew tired of accepting low-level radioactive waste from the rest of the country. As a result, Congress told the states in 1980 to build their own dumps or join regional groups to dispose of the waste. No regional compact has built a dump yet.

Jim O’Connell, Kansas’ representative on the commission, said he voted against the settlement because of the way Nebraska blocked construction of the site.

‘Sham review’ alleged
“It means that a state can conduct ... what amounts to a sham review of a license application, do so at an exorbitant cost and then, when eventually being caught at it, can absolve itself by refunding the money,” he said.

But Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns called the deal a success for the state, noting that with interest, the $151 million judgment would have brought Nebraska’s total bill to $207 million. And the other states had initially insisted after the 2002 ruling that Nebraska was still obligated to host a nuclear waste dump, Johanns said.

“Considering the potential downside of this, this is a good settlement for the state,” Johanns said. He said tax revenues are improving and he thinks he can pay the settlement without seeking a tax increase.

State in budget crisis
Nebraska is in the middle of an ongoing budget crisis and lawmakers will use the legislative session beginning January to find the money. “It won’t be easy, but at least it will be behind us,” said state Sen. Roger Wehrbein, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Nebraska has offered to pay Texas a flat fee of $25 million to take the low-level radioactive waste from the five states, plus $5 million to cover any unforeseen expenses for storing it. The Texas Legislature has already approved the establishment of two other private waste disposal facilities.

A spokesman for Nelson, David DiMartino, said the senator had not seen the settlement and could not be reached for comment because he was traveling overseas.

His chief of staff, Tim Becker, said he was sure the settlement will be an issue in Nelson’s 2006 re-election bid, 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.

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