The story was hot in more ways than one: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposed to deregulate much of so-called "low-level" radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear plants, to deem it "Below Regulatory Concern" and allow it to be treated, without monitoring, like plain old garbage.
This proposal was on the NRC's agenda from 1985 onward, and finally went into effect on June 27, 1990. Some 30 percent of radioactive material can now be dumped in landfills, burnt in incinerators, disposed of in sewage systems, spread on farmland with sludge or mixed with safe material to be processed into consumer products.
Stories on the deregulation were run by some smaller regional newspapers: The Oneonta (N.Y.) Daily Star ran a story as early as July 12, 1989. But readers of nationally circulated newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal, and viewers of major TV networks, weren't aware of the NRC action until it was finalized on June 27, 1990, or the day before. This blackout led Project Censored, a media monitoring effort, to name the dumping proposal one of the ten most under-reported stories of 1989.
"The coverage was minimal, although the NRC plan will impact every person in the country," said Diane D'Arrigo, radioactive-waste project director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service of Washington D.C. D'Arrigo attributed some of the major media's reluctance to "an incredulity that the government was really doing something like this."
Dr. Conrad Miller, president of Physicians for Life, a Water Mill, N.Y.-based group that has opposed the NRC plan, sent out 50 information packets on the issue to major U.S. media in March. "I got no response," he said.
By early June, he took to the telephone and still got nowhere. A CNN editor told him that she had "thrown into the garbage" the information he sent her. "She told me, 'I don't understand it,'" said Miller. "and, 'You've got to be kidding that they'll do this.'"
Still, said D'Arrigo, "Dr. Miller's calls did help get the coverage" on the eve of the NRC's action. But by then, it was too late to mobilize public opposition to the nuclear waste-dumping.