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U.S.: NRC seeks further input in waste recycling plans

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(April 11, 2003) The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has announced its intent to make regulations on what it calls "controlling the disposition of solid materials." Last years, NRC has worked on proposals for the re-use or dumping of (very) low-level waste mainly from decommissioning nuclear facilities. In the current proposal two new alternatives have been formulated: conditional re-use for specified purposes (such as use in industrial components or roads) and the disposal of radioactive waste at normal landfills (not designed to contain radioactive waste).

(585.5505) NIRS - Although the "solid materials" upon which NRC is focusing could be contaminated with plutonium-239, strontium-90, cobalt-60 or any radionuclides from nuclear facilities, NRC likes to compare its proposals with any other industrial or household cleanup effort. By taking the word "radioactive" out of the title of the rulemaking and comparing reactor operations and decommissioning to spring cleaning our homes, the NRC hopes to engage the public in the discussion of what to do with the radioactive waste.

Since all six US commercial "low-level" radioactive waste dumps are leaking or have leaked, and four have closed, it has been tough (actually impossible) to open new licensed dumps. The states of Utah and Texas are both threatened with major license expansions at existing waste sites, originally opened for limited waste categories. 'Creative' ideas for what to do with the atomic waste abound.

Some is being sent to the White Mesa uranium mill in Blanding, Utah for 'processing' and extraction of uranium residues in waste, leaving the rest in the ground at that site (see WISE News Communique 551.5295: "Alternate feed material: putting radwaste through uranium mills"). The tailings areas were not designed to isolate the fission products and transuranics from nuclear power production that are present in this waste.

Some could be going directly to recyclers, often without their knowledge or consent. The nuclear generators would rather consider the material "not radioactive" and sell it as scrap for "recycling" into everyday commerce than treat it as nuclear waste that must be kept isolated from the environment and public. In other words, waste producers would like to "release" or "clear" some of their wastes from regulatory control so they can be sold into the recycling market.

Some goes to processors that have licenses to release the waste after efforts to clean the radioactivity off (extract it and create contaminated and 'clean' fractions).

The public opposition to deregulating radioactive waste has been broad, unified and clear in the US over the past two decades. Thus, the NRC and the Department of Energy, in a separate effort, are suggesting equally unacceptable half-steps that they hope will appear less objectionable to the public. This is what they now propose in the two alternative options. Rather than selling or giving away the radioactive waste into unrestricted commerce, they would like to send it (A) to municipal, industrial or hazardous waste landfills or other waste facilities that are not designed or licensed to manage radioactive materials and (B) for "restricted" or "conditional" uses that would supposedly give lower radiation doses to the public than the unrestricted uses in the open marketplace. Some of NRC's ideas for "conditional" uses of nuclear wastes include bridge abutments, piping for outdoor use, sewer lines, industrial factory components and road fill.

These options (disposal at unlicensed sites and "restricted" release/"conditional" use) obviously ignore the fact that landfills leak and can have hazardous emissions. Sending nuclear waste to such sites will cause emissions to be radioactively contaminated in addition to the pollutants already getting out. Restricted releases and conditional use of nuclear waste will also cause radioactive exposures to the public and the environment both during their "conditional" use and after. The long-lasting radioactivity from plutonium-239, cesium-137, strontium-90 and cobalt-60 could well outlast the "restricted" or "conditional" use. There will be no follow up on the next use of the radioactive materials after the "conditional" use as a bridge or pipeline is complete. The still-radioactive materials could end up in personal use items or other unpredictable places in a relatively short time.

The NRC's rulemaking is based on four broad performance goals including:

  1. Maintaining safety, protection of the environment and common defense and security;
  2. Increasing public confidence;
  3. Making NRC's activities and decisions effective, efficient and realistic;
  4. Reducing unnecessary regulatory burden on stakeholders.

NRC claims its principle goal in the rulemaking is to protect the public health and safety. Yet every option results in unnecessary exposure of the public to ionizing radiation. Reducing the regulatory burden for some stakeholders, the nuclear waste generators, means increasing the risk to the public.

There are five alternatives suggested by NRC for this rulemaking, three "release" options and two "disposal" options. Since this is a scoping process, the public can suggest additional alternatives. The choices are:

Alternative 1: Continue releasing radioactive waste into unrestricted commerce as is currently being done.

That is by case-by-case permission, license amendments and other procedures that NRC use to permit radioactive releases now. They rely mainly on a 1974 Atomic Energy Commission guidance document (Regulatory Guide 1.86) that was never intended for releasing wastes into unrestricted commerce to make items with which we come into intimate personal contact. Not much documentation exists about Regulatory Guide 1.86, but it came into popular use by NRC and the nuclear industry to justify releasing radioactive sites. Reg. Guide 1.86 consists of charts with surface contamination levels for various types of radionuclides. Reportedly the levels were chosen because they were the lowest levels that could be technically detected at the time (1974). The guidance levels are not "safe" levels, but they are measurable levels.

Alternative 2: Continue releasing radioactive waste into unrestricted commerce but justify it by claiming it is within an acceptable dose-range. Amend NRC's regulations to set an acceptable 'dose criterion.'

This is the nuclear industry's dream-a risk or dose based standard. NRC would legalize exposure to members of the public at dose ranges that can neither be verified nor enforced. The industry can then hire health physicists to do the calculations to predict the "acceptable" and "legal" radiation doses from the waste they want to sell or give away. They will use computer models created by the nuclear industry or the Department of Energy or contractors with a blatant conflict of interest such as Science Applications International Corporation (see WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 577.5463: "U.S. NRC resumes radioactive "recycling" rulemaking"), that can be manipulated, by changing assumptions, to justify releasing widely varying levels of contamination.

Alternative 3: 'Conditional' Use/'Restricted' Release of material for certain authorized uses that lead to (supposedly) limited public exposures.

This option specifies certain activities for which slightly contaminated material may be used and where the risk of contact with people is less than unrestricted use. But, once released, even if only for conditional or restricted uses, there will be no follow up to verify compliance with the alleged restrictions. Metals and other materials could get into recycling and unrestricted use at any time in the future.

Alternative 4: Disposal in an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -regulated landfill.

Radioactively contaminated wastes could go to municipal, industrial or hazardous waste facilities that are not designed to isolate radioactive wastes and that have much shorter institutional control periods than specifically licensed radioactive waste disposal sites. The EPA regulations do not apply to radioactive materials. NIRS also opposes EPA's plans to legalize sending mixed radioactive and hazardous waste to facilities licensed for hazardous materials only.

Alternative 5: Disposal in an NRC or Agreement state-licensed radioactive waste disposal site.

This option is the closest to the existing public demand for isolation of radioactivity from the public and the environment. Specifically licensed nuclear dumps take into account a certain amount of leakage and can not isolate radioactive waste from the environment completely. But they are designated for radioactive waste, so future generations might have a fighting chance of knowing that it is a radioactive site. This is the only alternative that prevents the dispersal of nuclear waste into commerce and unregulated facilities. A variation of this option that would reduce transportation of nuclear materials would be to keep the waste at the production sites, and expand the license to store and recontainerize the wastes as their packaging deteriorates. This would preclude complete release of the site for unrestricted use.

Until 30 June, comments on the proposal can be sent to the NRC (see next).


The request for public comments on NRC's proposal on the "scoping" appeared in the 28 February 2003 US Federal Register (68 FR 40:9595-9602) and 30 June 2003 is the deadline for written or electronic comments. 'Scoping' is the determination of the range of the rulemaking as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. For information on the proposal see also NRC's press release at:

NRC plans to have a final rule by the end of 2005. A 2-day public meeting will be held at NRC headquarters north of Washington, DC on May 21-22, 2003.

Copies of comments to NRC should be sent to your local, state and federal elected officials so that they too can comment. Send resolutions, ordinances, petitions, detailed comments, short notes and any other creative responses, ideally calling for licensed regulatory control over all radioactive waste and contaminated materials, by 30 June 2003 to:

By Mail: Secretary, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC 20555 Attention: Rulemaking and Adjudications Staff.
OR Upload to NRC's Website:; Select Information/CommentRequests from left hand column near bottom; Select Control of Disposition of Solids Rulemaking; Click on View/Submit Comments.

Source and contact: Diane D'Arrigo at