HARRISBURG, Pa. -- For years, the Hershey Medical Center has stored most of its low-level radioactive waste inside its basement until the radiation decays and the material is safe enough to throw away.
The remainder is shipped for burial in the clay soil just outside Barnwell, S.C.
It's a practice that disturbs Jim Hodges, South Carolina's Democratic governor-elect -- and one he's vowed to stop.
"We don't want to be labeled as a dumping ground for the entire country. It simply opens the door to more waste," said Ashley Shaw, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hodges. "We'd like to get a hold on it now and control it."
Mr. Hodges' policies on the Barnwell landfill are being closely scrutinized in Pennsylvania and other states. Without Barnwell, most of Pennsylvania's hospitals, industries and nuclear power plants would be forced to store their waste on site.
"We're tracking what's going on there," said Keith Kearns, acting director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Radiation Protection.
Though a decision is two years off at best, the threat of Barnwell closing may rekindle efforts to build a low-level waste site in Pennsylvania. Earlier this year the work was suspended because of falling trash volumes and the availability of Barnwell.
Low-level radioactive waste comes from nuclear power plants, industry and medical research facilities. The waste can remain radioactive from a few hours to millions of years. Most of the radiation, more than 98 percent, comes from nuclear power plants.
The Appalachian States Compact, which includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, is expected to discuss stopping the practice of sending waste out of state when it meets Wednesday in Harrisburg, Mr. Kearns said.
The organization was formed after a 1980 federal law made states responsible for their own radioactive wastes.
It is too soon to say that the compact's search for a single storage site within those four states will be restarted, Mr. Kearns said. Texas and California also have suspended efforts to develop a dump.
There are also private companies, one in Texas and one in Utah, that are applying for the right to handle the waste, officials said.
The closing of Barnwell is a concern to all radioactive waste producers because the only other sites available, one in Utah and the other in Hanford, Wash., have severe restrictions, Hershey officials said.
"We're very concerned," said John Vincenti, executive director of Appalachian Compact Users of Radioactive Isotopes, an industry group. "Access is the whole issue that runs the cycle."
Small businesses will be hardest hit because they have the least capability for storing waste on site, he said.
"It's quite frustrating at this point because generators have no idea what can transpire," Mr. Vincenti said. "This is not a technical issue at this point; it's a political issue."
The nuclear power industry is watching, but not seriously concerned yet. Nuclear plants are accustomed to storing waste on site, said Bill Jones, a spokesman for PECO Energy Co., owner of the Peach Bottom nuclear station in York County and the Limerick plant in Montgomery County.
PECO also has agreed to buy Three Mile Island.
"I think every nuclear power plant is watching the South Carolina situation very carefully," said David Carl, spokesman from GPU Nuclear, operator of TMI.
Because of the volatile nature of nuclear waste storage, generators like GPU have reduced the waste they produce. Since 1994, TMI Unit 1's waste volumes have dropped by 76 percent, he said. Carl estimates that TMI has space to store low-level waste for about 10 to 15 years.