"All the world's a stage we pass through." - R. Ayana

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mainstreaming Nuclear Waste

Mainstreaming Nuclear Waste
Out of Control on Purpose

Radioactive materials from nuclear weapons production sites are being dumped into regular landfills, and are available for recycling and resale. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) has tracked the Department of Energy’s (DOE) release of radioactive scrap, concrete, equipment, asphalt, chemicals, soil, and more, to unaware and unprepared recipients such as landfills, commercial businesses, and recreation areas. Under the current system, the DOE releases contaminated materials directly, sells them at auctions or through exchanges, or sends the materials to processors who can release them from radioactive controls. The recycling of these materials—for reuse in the production of everyday household and personal items such as zippers, toys, furniture, and automobiles, or to build roads, schools, and playgrounds—is increasingly common.
The NIRS report, “Out of Control on Purpose: DOE’s Dispersal of Radioactive Waste into Landfills and Consumer Products,” tracks the laws, methods, and justifications used by the DOE to expedite the mandatory cleanup of the environmental legacy being created by the nation’s nuclear weapons program and government-sponsored nuclear energy research. One of the largest and most technically complex environmental cleanup programs in the world, the effort includes cleanup of 114 sites across the country to be completed by the end of 2008.

The DOE has unilaterally chosen allowable radioactive contamination and public exposure levels to facilitate “clean-up” of these sites. Pressure is increasing to allow clearing radioactivity from control in order to legalize the dispensing and disbursing of nuclear waste.

In 2000, the Secretary of Energy banned the commercial recycling of potentially radioactive metal. However, the ban does not apply to the disposal, reuse, or recycling of metal equipment, components, and pipes, or of other materials.

Seven sites of importance were investigated for the NIRS report: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Rocky Flats, Colorado; Los Alamos, New Mexico; Mound and Fernald, Ohio; West Valley, New York; and Paducah, Kentucky. Of these, Tennessee is said to be the main funnel that pours nuclear weapon and power waste from around the country into landfills and recycling facilities without public knowledge. “People around regular trash landfills will be shocked to learn that radioactive contamination from nuclear weapons production is ending up there, either directly released by DOE or via brokers and processors,” says author Diane D’Arrigo, NIRS’s Radioactive Waste Project director.

EnergySolutions, the company that operates the only private low-level radioactive waste disposal business in the US, disposes of more than 90 percent of the low-level radioactive waste generated in the US. It operates waste processing and disposition facilities in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Utah. The company also operates low-level radioactive waste disposal facilities, vaults, and landfills on the DOE Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee.
Amazingly, as the DOE struggles through desperate and irresponsible measures to “disappear” this nation’s nuclear waste by the end of 2008, EnergySolutions has applied for a license in Tennessee to process nuclear waste from Italy.
This application marks the first time in the history of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that a company has asked to dispose of large amounts of foreign-generated low-level radioactive waste in the United States.

In February 2008, Bart Gordon, the Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology, asked the Northwest Interstate Compact of Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management to withhold licensing that he says would put the US on a path to becoming “the world’s nuclear garbage waste dump.”

In an understatement, Gordon argued, “The US already faces capacity issues and other challenges in treating and disposing of radioactive waste produced domestically. We should be working on solving this problem at home before taking dangerous waste from around the world.”



The nuclear power and weapons industry and the government agencies that promote, oversee, and regulate nuclear activities are trying to save money by allowing large amounts of man-made, radioactively contaminated materials and property to be redefined as not radioactive. They don’t want to pay to try to isolate nuclear waste, including metal, concrete, asphalt, plastic, soil, equipment, and buildings, so they have developed ways to send the waste to regular landfills or even into commercial recycling that could end up in daily-use items the public makes contact with regularly.

This story is increasingly important as old nuclear weapons sites and power reactors close and the companies seek relief from responsibility and liability for the long-lasting nuclear waste they generated. It is especially dangerous as new nuclear power and weapons facilities are proposed, which will dramatically increase the amount of waste generated that could get into the public realm.

Although the US federal agencies have not generally allowed nuclear waste to be released from controls, they are still working on it. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have proposed rules in the wings, likely to emerge at any time. NRC is encouraging case by case releases of nuclear waste. The DOE has procedures to allow some radioactive waste out of controls but claims to be preventing radioactive metal from getting into the commercial metal market. A programmatic environmental review could overturn that prohibition, and internally DOE has many loopholes to let nuclear wastes out.

The story wasn’t covered much in the mainstream news. One notable exception was the investigative team led by Demetria Kalodimos on Channel 4 WSMV, Nashville’s NBC affiliate, who reported on the story and did over twenty follow-ups in the Nashville area (see http://www.nirs.org for links). Public awareness led to legislative attention and a commitment by the landfill operator who was taking nuclear waste to stop taking it. Kalodimos received three journalism awards for reporting and following up on the story herself.

The community is not satisfied with this voluntary commitment, because the Tennessee State Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) still allows nuclear waste to be released from controls. TDEC licenses companies to import nuclear waste from around the country and world for “processing,” including incineration and metal melting and reuse.

The report identified TDEC and Tennessee as leaders in releasing nuclear waste out of control.

The situation has worsened since last year. One of the processors is proposing to import a huge portion of Italy’s nuclear power waste to burn, process, melt and dump in the US (Tennessee and Utah).

Action against this can be taken by contacting your state governors to oppose it and by supporting federal legislation that would prohibit the US from importing foreign nuclear waste.

Citizens can also contact their state officials to find out if their state is allowing nuclear waste into the solid waste streams in their communities.

Contact dianed@nirs.org for more information.
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, May 14, 2007
Title: “Nuclear Waste in Landfills”
Author: Diane D’Arrigo
Environment News Service, May 14, 2007
Title: “US Allows Radioactive Materials in Ordinary Landfills”
Author: Sunny Lewis
Environment News Service, February 4, 2008
Title: “US Company Seeks Permit to Import Nuclear Waste”
Author: Sunny Lewis
Student Researchers: Derek Harms and Cedric Therene
Faculty Evaluator: Noel Byrne, PhD

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