Nuclear Regulatory Commission keen to allow material to be disposed of by ‘land burial’ – with potentially damaging effects
he federal agency providing oversight of the commercial nuclear sector is attempting to push through a rule change critics say could allow dangerous amounts of radioactive material to be disposed of in places like municipal landfills, with potentially serious consequences to human health and the environment.
“This would be the most massive deregulation of radioactive waste in American history,” said Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear industry watchdog non-profit, about a proposal that would permit “very low-level” radioactive waste to be disposed of by “land burial”.
Currently, low-level radioactive waste is primarily disposed of in highly regulated sites in Texas, Washington, South Carolina and Utah. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also provides exemptions allowing “low-level waste” to be dumped in unlicensed disposal sites, but these exemptions are given only rarely, and are conducted with strict case-by-case protocols in place.
The proposed “interpretive” rule change relaxes the rules surrounding how radioactive materials would be disposed of in unlicensed disposal sites “significantly”, said Hirsch.
“If you dump radioactive waste in places that aren’t designed to deal with it, it comes back to haunt you. It’s in the air you breathe, the food that you eat, the water you drink,” he added.
In an email, David McIntyre, an NRC spokesperson, explained that the rule would apply only to a “small subset” of very low-level waste, and that the agency would not allow such disposals “if we felt public health and safety and the environment would not be protected”.
But major sticking point, say experts, concerns how the term “very low-level waste” is not defined by statute or in the NRC’s own regulations.
The NRC describes low-level wastes as contaminated materials like clothing, tools, and medical equipment. According to McIntyre, the radioactivity of “very low-level waste” is just above background. “The radioactivity level of very low-level waste is so low that it may be safely disposed of in hazardous or municipal solid waste landfills,” he wrote.
Nevertheless, “background doesn’t mean it’s safe,” said Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, who added that the interpretive rule’s loose language “opens the floodgates” for nuclear waste to be disposed of “as if not radioactive”.
The proposal caps the maximum annual “cumulative dose” to a person from the radioactive wastes dumped into unlicensed sites to 25 millirems – the same limit the NRC uses for highly regulated waste disposal sites. That measurement, said D’Arrigo, is a “projected” amount that can be manipulated through modeling.
Some environmentalists fear the rule change will also disproportionately impact low-income, marginalized communities who are more likely than their wealthier neighbors to be situated near solid waste landfills.
According to Caroline Reiser, nuclear energy legal fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council, if the proposal is successfully passed, then the issue could end up in court.
“Once it starts getting implemented, that’s when the real fights end up happening,” she said.