Does U.S. Advice on Disposing Fukushima Waste Apply Back Home?

Sept. 12, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — A present­a­tion the U.S. En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency made to Ja­pan­ese of­fi­cials deal­ing with the af­ter­math of the Fukushi­ma power plant dis­aster is adding to crit­ics’ con­cerns that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment may be look­ing to re­lax dis­pos­al rules for the type of ra­dio­act­ive waste a nuc­le­ar at­tack or ac­ci­dent in the United States could gen­er­ate.

In re­cent months, watch­dog groups, along with some state-gov­ern­ment agen­cies, have been rais­ing con­cerns over lan­guage in a new EPA guide for deal­ing with the af­ter­math of such an in­cid­ent.

The so-called “pro­tect­ive ac­tion guide,” which the agency is ac­cept­ing pub­lic com­ments on through Monday, sug­gests it may be ne­ces­sary to dis­pose some ra­dio­act­ive waste in con­ven­tion­al land­fills rather than in nuc­le­ar waste-spe­cif­ic fa­cil­it­ies built pur­su­ant to Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion rules.

The dis­pos­al is­sue is one of sev­er­al con­cerns that act­iv­ists and some state of­fi­cials have with the doc­u­ment, which is meant to give ad­vice to fed­er­al, state and loc­al of­fi­cials fol­low­ing a broad range of ra­di­olo­gic­al in­cid­ents — such as “dirty bomb” at­tacks, nuc­le­ar power plant melt­downs and in­dus­tri­al ac­ci­dents. The guide is also cre­at­ing con­tro­versy for sug­gest­ing that stand­ards for drink­ing wa­ter and long-term cleanup could be re­laxed after such in­cid­ents.

EPA of­fi­cials have ar­gued in state­ments to the press that they are not look­ing to re­treat from their con­ven­tion­al rules, but crit­ics say oth­er agency doc­u­ments ob­tained by Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire sug­gest oth­er­wise.

The doc­u­ments, some of which the agency re­leased to GSN un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act, sug­gest agency of­fi­cials are ad­voc­at­ing for cleanup and dis­pos­al pro­ced­ures that or­din­ar­ily would not be per­mit­ted in the United States, crit­ics say. They fear lan­guage in the new EPA re­sponse guide could en­able such ex­cep­tions to the nor­mal rules.

In the United States, ma­ter­i­als that have be­come ra­dio­act­ively con­tam­in­ated nor­mally can­not be cat­egor­ized as any­thing less than “low-level ra­dio­act­ive waste,” or “LLRW,” a dis­tinc­tion that re­quires dis­pos­al at tail­or-made nuc­le­ar-waste sites de­signed to pre­vent the re­lease of ra­di­ation in­to the en­vir­on­ment.

A May 2012 EPA present­a­tion to Ja­pan­ese of­fi­cials grap­pling with the af­ter­math of the Fukushi­ma dis­aster sug­gests, however, that some con­tam­in­ated debris could be clas­si­fied as “very low-level waste,” or “VVLW.”

Such a cat­egory does not ex­ist in the United States, but In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency guid­ance doc­u­ments de­scribe it as one that would al­low some ra­dio­act­ive waste to be sub­ject to less strin­gent dis­pos­al reg­u­la­tions than LLRW ma­ter­i­als — a pro­spect that en­vir­on­ment­al­ists in the United States have long op­posed and ar­gue is not ac­cep­ted by U.S. policy.

The May present­a­tion was led by John Cardarelli, an of­fi­cial in the EPA emer­gency man­age­ment of­fice who has led the agency’s ef­forts to as­sist the Ja­pan­ese since the on­set of the Fukushi­ma crisis in 2011.

It sug­gests that some less­er-con­tam­in­ated ma­ter­i­als could even be deemed “non-ra­dio­act­ive waste” and there­fore be­come eli­gible for re­cyc­ling, po­ten­tially for use in con­sumer products, which crit­ics also ar­gue is cur­rently il­leg­al in the United States.

In a state­ment provided to GSN, the agency says the present­a­tion was meant to “broadly dis­cuss op­tions for pos­sible con­sid­er­a­tion for the Ja­pan­ese in the af­ter­math of Fukushi­ma.” It non­ethe­less de­fends the dis­pos­al and re­cyc­ling op­tions offered in the present­a­tion, sug­gest­ing they are backed by U.S. gov­ern­ment and in­dustry of­fi­cials.

The Health Phys­ics So­ci­ety sup­ports the idea that some con­tam­in­ated items should re­ceive “clear­ance” from all reg­u­la­tion in a 1999 re­port it pre­pared pur­su­ant to the spe­cific­a­tions of the Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Stand­ards In­sti­tute — a private or­gan­iz­a­tion whose mem­bers in­clude the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute and oth­er nuc­le­ar in­dustry groups — ac­cord­ing to the EPA state­ment, provided to GSN by agency spokes­wo­man Ju­lia Valentine.

In ad­di­tion, the U.S. Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion “does spe­cify ex­empt and un­im­port­ant quant­it­ies of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­al in [its] reg­u­la­tions,” the EPA state­ment as­serts.

Fur­ther, the pro­spect of re­cyc­ling cer­tain ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als in the United States “has been dis­cussed and ana­lyzed over the years,” most re­cently in a draft en­vir­on­ment­al as­sess­ment by the En­ergy De­part­ment that con­tem­plates lift­ing a ban on re­cyc­ling ra­dio­act­ive scrap metals, the agency says.

“Nearly all soil and ma­ter­i­als have some amount of nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring and/or an­thro­po­gen­ic ra­dio­activ­ity as­so­ci­ated with it,” the EPA state­ment ar­gues. “At some point a con­tam­in­ant will be present in a me­dia where it is not a sig­ni­fic­ant risk or dose con­trib­ut­or, either on its own or com­pared to oth­er nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring an­thro­po­gen­ic con­tam­in­ants.”

Daniel Hirsch, a nuc­le­ar policy lec­turer at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia-Santa Cruz, says the EPA ar­gu­ment is con­trary to U.S. policy.

Fed­er­al policy “doesn’t say there is a con­tam­in­ant at a level where there is not a sig­ni­fic­ant risk and we can there­fore ig­nore it,” he said. “Cur­rent law says that any­thing that’s ra­dio­act­ive has to be dis­posed of ap­pro­pri­ately.”

Hirsch called the Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Stand­ards In­sti­tute re­port the agency cited “a pro­pos­al by in­dustry” that is “at vari­ance with the EPA policy [that Cardarelli] is sworn to carry out.” In ad­di­tion, the agency’s claim that the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion already al­lows some ra­dio­act­ive waste to be dis­posed out­side of pur­pose-built fa­cil­it­ies is mis­lead­ing, he said.

The com­mis­sion — which primar­ily deals with com­mer­cial power plants and some re­search re­act­ors and med­ic­al fa­cil­it­ies — has op­ted not to reg­u­late cer­tain items con­tain­ing ra­dio­act­ive ele­ments such as lu­min­ous watch di­als and gas lan­terns. However, U.S. policy does not grant the type of broad ex­emp­tions that would al­low ma­ter­i­als con­tam­in­ated with ra­dio­act­ive sub­stances from a nuc­le­ar-power-plant melt­down or ra­di­olo­gic­al at­tack in con­ven­tion­al land­fills not spe­cific­ally cre­ated for nuc­le­ar waste, Hirsch ar­gues.

The com­mis­sion has a rule that per­mits nuc­le­ar power plants to ap­ply for ex­cep­tions, but it is rarely used, said Hirsch. As pres­id­ent of the watch­dog group Com­mit­tee to Bridge the Gap, he cur­rently is in­volved in lit­ig­a­tion aimed at pre­vent­ing ra­dio­act­ive waste from a melt­down at the DOE Santa Susana Field Labor­at­ory in Cali­for­nia from be­ing re­cycled or sent to con­ven­tion­al dumps.

Past NRC pro­pos­als to cre­ate a waste cat­egory “be­low reg­u­lat­ory con­cern” that would be sub­ject to less strin­gent rules was re­jec­ted by Con­gress in the En­ergy Policy Act of 1992, he noted.

Mean­while, the pending en­vir­on­ment­al as­sess­ment by the En­ergy De­part­ment cited in the EPA state­ment, which con­tem­plates lift­ing a ban on re­cyc­ling ra­dio­act­ive scrap metals, has yet to be ad­op­ted by the de­part­ment and so far is fa­cing broad op­pos­i­tion. It is op­posed by not only pub­lic health act­iv­ists, but also the re­cyc­ling in­dustry.

If the type of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als the de­part­ment is con­sid­er­ing de­reg­u­lat­ing “enter the scrap sup­ply stream, they would make their way to met­al re­cyc­ling fa­cil­it­ies where they would dis­rupt mill op­er­a­tions, con­tam­in­ate the mill, im­pose sig­ni­fic­ant re­sponse costs and po­ten­tially ex­pose work­ers and the pub­lic to ra­di­ation,” the Metals In­dustry Re­cyc­ling Co­ali­tion says in Feb­ru­ary com­ments on the DOE pro­pos­al.

The EPA state­ment says that Cardarelli’s present­a­tion to Ja­pan­ese of­fi­cials was meant to “gen­er­ally dis­cuss waste clas­si­fic­a­tions in the in­ter­na­tion­al con­text.” But the sug­ges­tions in it — along with the agency’s de­fense of them — causes con­cern over the type of prac­tices the gov­ern­ment might al­low un­der the new nuc­le­ar-re­sponse guide, said Hirsch.

“Why would EPA go in to make a present­a­tion on what oth­ers do?” said Hirsch. “They’re sup­posed to be mak­ing a present­a­tion on what we do. If you’re go­ing to say something that vi­ol­ates the U.S. policy, you should say so.”

The new dis­aster-re­sponse guide that EPA is­sued in April does not go as far as to re­com­mend re­cyc­ling of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als, but sug­gests in some cir­cum­stances that the sheer volume of waste may force state and loc­al gov­ern­ments to dis­pose of it in con­ven­tion­al land­fills.

This idea is be­ing op­posed by state and loc­al of­fi­cials in Cali­for­nia and Pennsylvania, on the grounds that only the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has the au­thor­ity to dis­pose of ra­dio­act­ive waste — and only at pur­pose-built sites.

Ed­it­or’s note: This is the second in a two part series on the new EPA re­sponse guide. GSN pub­lished the first part Wed­nes­day.

Cla­ri­fic­a­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story at­trib­uted a 1999 re­port re­com­mend­ing that some con­tam­in­ated items re­ceive “clear­ance” from all reg­u­la­tion to the Amer­ic­an Na­tion­al Stand­ards In­sti­tute. The re­port was de­veloped by the Health Phys­ics So­ci­ety pur­su­ant to AN­SI spe­cific­a­tions.

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