The Alliance For A Clean Environment
Feds mull new approach
Mercury Staff Writer
Environmentalists support recycling, but not for low-level radioactive waste.
That's the opposition federal officials are facing as they consider changing government rules for tens of thousands of cubic feet of waste material produced annually at facilities like the Limerick Generating Station.
A U.S. Nuclear regulatory Commission proposal released last summer looks at turning the waste into products ranging from auto parts to soil to furniture. The period for public comment on the document ended Dec. 22.
Thanks to nine active nuclear reactors, Pennsylvania is among the nation's leaders in generating low-level radioactive waste, which includes the clothing and tools used at nuclear facilities as well as scrap metal, concrete and other solids from active and decommissioned plants. Spent reactor fuel is categorized as high-level radioactive waste.
Currently, Limerick and other facilities east of the Mississippi River generally send their low-level waste to an NRC-licensed dump in Barnwell, S.C.
But South Carolina officials are thinking about limiting Barnwell's role as a nuclear dump for the East and the federal government - whose Department of Energy has tons of low-level waste at its former nuclear weapons production sites - is considering recycling as an option to burying the stuff.
"You don't want to put everything in a landfill," said NRC spokeswoman Mindy Landau. "Some people would say it's more environmentally friendly to recycle."
Diane D'Arrigo would not say so. She heads the radioactive waste project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a public-interest group based in Washington.
Her organization and several others, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, boycotted the NRC's four public meetings on the topic.
"They should isolate the material to keep it apart from the environment," D'Arrigo said. "There should be no radioactive waste put into commercial products, period."
D'Arrigo said allowing even small amounts of radioactive waste to be sold in the free market would shift liability for problems it may cause from nuclear firms onto the public.
Supporters of recycling radioactive materials include the Association of Radioactive Metal Recyclers and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group whose representatives participated in the NRC's public meetings.
"Industry needs to clear materials out on a daily basis," said Paul Genoa of the NEI. "This includes all materials, for example, workers' clothing, shoes, vehicles, tools, equipment, consumables,"
Genoa urged the NRC to create a rule stating the amount of radiation allowed for items leaving a plant to be recycled.
"We believe that the establishment of a practical standard that clearly protects public health will limit much of the liability that currently exists," he said.
The NRC does license some recycling of radioactive material on a case-by-case basis under a policy enacted in 1990. "What we would like to do is make it more consistent," Landau said.
D'Arrigo contends the agency's current practice is illegal and that it's not clear how much radioactivity is already released this way.
But with a new rule, she said. "It's like opening the floodgates."
The NRC will review the comments it has received and decide in March whether to push forward with a new regulation or discuss the issue further.