Biased Process Promotes Forced Exposure to Nuclear Waste; Radioactive Materials Could be Released Into Consumer Goods, Building Supplies

March 26, 2001

Biased Process Promotes Forced Exposure to Nuclear Waste; Radioactive Materials Could be Released Into Consumer Goods, Building Supplies

119 Groups and Individuals Protest Lopsided Agenda of NAS Committee Meeting

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The process used by a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee to determine how to dispose of radioactive waste is skewed toward reaching one recommendation: use the waste to make common household goods and building materials, according to a “Statement of Concern about Balance and Perspective” issued today by 119 public interest groups and individuals.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee, enlisted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to provide recommendations for the dispersal of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, is biased and designed to lend legitimacy to releasing the waste into regular commerce, the groups said. The NAS committee holds its second meeting today through Wednesday in Washington, D.C. The groups and individuals include singer Bonnie Raitt, the Sierra Club, the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility and the United Steelworkers of America.

The groups are concerned that radioactively contaminated materials could be widely distributed throughout the environment and end up in a wide array of consumer goods. Should such releases be allowed to continue and increase, the radioactive legacy of America?s nuclear power and weapons industry could end up in everything from cooking utensils and bicycles to homebuilding materials such as concrete, wood, metal and glass, the groups say. They are also concerned that radioactive soil could be used in landscaping or school playgrounds. In short, our overall environment could see a dramatic increase in radioactive contamination, according to David Ritter, a policy analyst for Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

Radioactive materials have been released from Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons and commercial sites for some time, and they continue to get out. Last year, as a result of pressure from citizen groups, unions and the steel industry, then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson placed a moratorium on the release of radioactive metals from DOE sites. However, the moratorium didn?t apply to commercial sites. Also, contaminated materials that aren?t metals still may be released from DOE sites, providing that the DOE believes that releases will result in “authorized doses” of radiation to the population. The NAS is advising the NRC on how to proceed to set a standard for the amount of radiation that the public can be exposed to from products containing recycled materials from the nuclear fuel chain.

The NAS committee (called the Committee on Alternatives for Controlling the Release of Solid Materials From Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensed Facilities) was formed in September and has 18 months to issue recommendations about how the NRC should deal with radioactively contaminated waste. The committee has invited “stakeholders” to present their views on the release, reuse or recycling of the materials from NRC-licensed facilities. The statement of concern issued today protests the composition of the speakers and the agenda for the meeting.

The groups? statement reminds the committee that “the public?s right to protection from unnecessary radiation exposure should be the pre-eminent concern” and that the signatories are “disappointed that the stakeholder presentations are so heavily skewed towards the nuclear industry.” Not a single public interest organization will have the chance to address the whole committee.

“This is blatantly unfair and biased,” said Diane D?Arrigo, project director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). “It discredits the supposedly scientific process that should be independent of powerful business interests.”

The first day of presentations, which will be made to the full committee, has been allotted solely to nuclear industry representatives. On the second day, the committee will split into two sections and hold simultaneous sessions. Only three of the 25 scheduled speakers will represent the general public, and just one organization ? representing a nuclear industry ? has been given two time slots for presentations.

The public interest sector wanted better representation at the meeting. According to D?Arrigo, “numerous others requested the opportunity to present, but were refused, some with unique and comprehensive knowledge of the very issues with which this committee must contend.”

The nuclear industry stands to reap great benefits from selling radioactive waste to be recycled into consumer goods. Selling, dumping or donating radioactive materials under the green-washed guise of “recycling” would be much more cost-effective for the companies that own and operate nuclear power plants than responsibly isolating and maintaining the waste for the many years they will be hazardous.

“What?s good for the bottom line of the nuclear companies is bad news for the public,” Ritter said. “The entire country could become a laboratory where people would be the guinea pigs for an experiment to discover the long-term health effects of repeated and unavoidable exposures to radiation.”

The protest letter urges that “this bias be corrected in all future sessions and that the expertise of this committee focus seriously on practical mechanisms to isolate radioactively contaminated materials from the public and the environment.”

The impact of any decision by the committee, which will influence the NRC?s rulemaking process, could set a precedent that would affect the release of similarly contaminated materials from nuclear weapons and other fuel chain sites within the Departments of Defense and Energy.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is hoping that the National Academy of Sciences will give them much-needed credibility for letting nuclear power wastes into our daily lives,” D?Arrigo said. “We are calling on the NAS Committee to really listen to critics and public sentiment and to reject this dangerous plan.”