For Immediate Release–Contact
Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
October 21, 2020 Nearly 10,000 comments were submitted by today’s deadline to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) against its plan to deliberately allow nuclear waste, mainly from nuclear power reactors, to go to regular garbage dumps and other places that do not have radioactive licenses.
The proposal, NRC-2020-0065, Transfer of Very Low Level Waste to Exempt Persons for Disposal (VLLW), has been renamed by opponents Very Large Lies about nuclear Very Long-Lasting nuclear Waste.
NRC proposes to “reinterpret” its own rules that have always required radioactive waste to go to places with a nuclear license. NRC would allow massive amounts of the radioactive concrete, soil, metal, wood, plastic, asphalt, equipment, piping, resins, chemicals, oil, rubble, demolition waste and reactor parts from nuclear power to go out with the regular trash to any place NRC grants a “specific exemption.” It could go to hazardous waste sites that are not designed for radioactive waste making them much more dangerous. It can take years to get a nuclear license, and there are four licensed sites in the U.S., in Washington, Utah, South Carolina, and Texas.
There is no requirement for public notice, no verifiable or enforceable limits and, despite NRC mislabeling the waste VLLW, the waste could be very radioactive and long-lasting with dozens of cancer-causing radionuclides like plutonium-239, cesium-137 and strontium-90.
The “exempt” landfills would be allowed to expose the public to as much radiation as operating nuclear power reactors and licensed nuclear waste sites–a level that can give cancer to 1 in every 500 people exposed over their lifetimes, according to Environmental Protection Agency calculations.
The opposition comes from entities rarely in agreement–national, regional and local public interest and environmental groups; waste management organizations; state officials who certify solid and hazardous waste sites and are responsible for air and water quality; state and regional agencies and organizations responsible for nuclear waste; local townships; a labor union; a radioactive waste company that took over a decade to get an NRC license; national organizations of state nuclear officials and regulators; environmental justice groups supporting residents of communities around existing solid and hazardous waste sites; and thousands of individuals.
Those commenters oppose the proposal for many of the same reasons. The NRC is trying to bypass normal rules for changing federal regulations: NRC claims it is merely “reinterpreting” longstanding regulations, not actually changing them. After 80 years of requiring anyone possessing manmade nuclear waste to have a license authorizing them to store or dispose of radioactive materials and waste, the NRC wants to authorize it to go to places without a license by changing the guidance, not the actual rule.
Many oppose shifting liability and responsibility to landfills that don’t have protections for nuclear waste, nor the knowledge, equipment or experience to manage, monitor and control it. Some groups argue that licensed sites should increase their protections–but instead NRC would weaken protections with this proposal. Licensed nuclear waste sites could actually lose business if the waste goes to regular trash instead of into their trenches. One company supports the change because it runs non-nuclear landfills that could take much of the radioactive waste. The new interpretation would “streamline” (do away with) the case-by-case analysis needed for exemptions to dump at their sites.
There is no definition, limit, or enforceable description on the kinds or amounts of radwaste to be let out of regulatory control. While some in the industry want NRC to define a new category of radioactive waste that could be so released, the majority of commenters do not want any amount of nuclear waste to be released from regulatory control. They say, the nuclear industry created it–keep it regulated.
There is even a question as to whether the “exempt” sites could import foreign nuclear materials or waste, referred to as “transboundary” waste.
The change could also confuse and violate U.S. Interstate Radioactive Waste Compacts’ authority over moving waste within the U.S.
“It is outrageous that the Trump Administration is trying to make us all “glow-in-the-dark” before he leaves office by de-regulating nuclear waste,” states Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics. “These de-regulated materials find their way into the scrap metal stream and from there enter into our homes in metal consumer products.”
“Since there is no safe level of radiation exposure, all industrially generated nuclear waste needs to be isolated, not dispersed into landfills, air, water and possibly even recycled consumer goods,” Diane D’Arrigo of Nuclear Information and Resource Service stated. “The big concern is the radioactive danger to current and future generations and the unlimited amount of radioactivity released to the environment. Most commenters don’t like that there is no public notice or opportunity to even know if their local landfill gets ‘exempt’ authorization from NRC.”
“This is not the first or last time the nuclear industry and its regulatory agencies have tried to let manmade radioactive waste out of control–to go to places that are not licensed for nuclear materials,” D’Arrigo said. “They keep changing the name so it looks like a different plan, but the bottom line is the same–nuclear power makes more waste than it can afford to isolate. From 1986 to 1992 it was ‘Below Regulatory Control’ or BRC but Congress rejected and overturned the BRC policies. Then it was called ‘deminimus.’ The Department of Energy tried ‘Beneficial Reuse’ of nuclear weapons radioactive metals and wastes. In Tennessee. it is Bulk Survey for Release (BSFR). Every time the public has found about these proposals-in the making, they have fought and stopped them. The only way to get this passed is to sneak it through. And that is what the NRC is attempting with its VLLW plan.”
Dan Hirsch, Committee to Bridge the Gap, former director of the Stevenson Nuclear Program at University of California Santa Cruz and nuclear expert commented, “The NRC seems intent on changing its own name to Nuclear DEregulatory Commission.”
“This proposal is sure to spawn fly-by-night dump operations on vacant lots, in urban renewal excavations, and on brownfield sites of old factories,” said Terry Lodge, Toledo-based environmental attorney. “As usual, the poor and most vulnerable populations will be the collateral damage from this dark atom that was supposed to save us.”
If the vast majority of the ~10,000 commenters get their way, this VLLW plan will go into the waste dump.
An audio teleconference on VLLW featuring each of the quoted experts can be accessed here.