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Nuclear Regulators Push Industry Agenda to Release, Recycle Radioactive Waste

May 21, 2003

Nuclear Regulators Push Industry Agenda to Release, Recycle Radioactive Waste


“Public” Workshop a Sham; Agency Bent on Helping Nuclear Industry Dump Waste in Landfills, Recycle Into Consumer Products

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A public workshop being held this week by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an attempt to pay lip service to those who do not want radioactive waste recycled while the agency forges ahead with plans to make it easier for the industry to dump the waste on unsuspecting consumers, Public Citizen said today.

In the first phase of a so-called “enhanced participatory” rulemaking that will determine to what extent certain radioactive waste materials will be released or recycled, the NRC is holding a workshop at its Beltway headquarters Wednesday and Thursday. A Public Citizen representative will be speaking at the main roundtable forum and presenting comments on the NRC’s proposed rule on the issue.

The workshop is indicative of the NRC’s continuing reluctance to directly address the public’s concerns and properly regulate radioactive waste materials in a way that fully protects public health, said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. Not only has the agency’s chairman stated that the agency supports releasing radioactive waste, but the workshop is being held during working hours – making it nearly impossible for concerned citizens who work to attend. Further, it is the only workshop planned on the issue.

Previously, at the NRC’s request, the National Academies convened a committee to address the issue of how to dispose of radioactively contaminated waste materials from NRC-licensed facilities. In March 2002, the committee issued its cautionary report, which called on the NRC to work to repair a “legacy of distrust” between it and the public, particularly regarding the issue of radioactive releases (dumping the waste into landfills, donating materials, incinerating them) and “recycling” (selling or giving them to manufacturers to be reused in consumer goods).

The committee recommended greater stakeholder involvement and input, and serious consideration of an alternative that would prohibit any releases of radioactive waste into landfills or recycling facilities unlicensed to receive radioactive waste. The report further stated that support for plans to release and “recycle” radioactive wastes comes largely from the nuclear industry itself.

Yet the NRC has responded to the report by charging ahead with a rulemaking that likely will reflect the commission’s admitted “continuing support for the release of solid [radioactively contaminated] material.” (Former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve wrote this in comments last year.)

“The public should know that the NRC is determined to do whatever it can to save money for generators of nuclear waste,” Hauter said. “And the public should also know that to save those radioactive polluters between $4.5 and $11.7 billion – a National Academies estimate – the waste just might have to go into their community’s landfill, or even into everyday products such as bicycles, bedsprings and home building materials.”

The NRC’s current policy permits radioactively contaminated materials to be released or recycled without restrictions on a “case-by-case” basis. Should the NRC standardize the policy via this rulemaking, the floodgates would be opened for the public to be exposed – without their knowledge or consent – to radiation from a wide variety of sources.

Such scenarios are hardly alarmist. NRC Commissioner Jeffrey S. Merrifield conceded in his October 2002 voting record comments that “[r]ecycled solid material is different in that there is a potential that the radioactive component may be concentrated in the recycling process or that the material will be recycled in a form resulting in more actual contact with the general public.” (emphasis ours)

The NRC claims on its Web site that its “primary mission is to protect public health and safety, and the environment from the effects of radiation.” The agency accepts the scientific model that any amount of radiation poses health risks. The agency also acknowledges that the release and recycling of radioactive waste would result in more human exposure to radiation. Yet the NRC – whose mission since birth has been to regulate the nuclear industry – has continued to support and promote an industry-backed scheme critical to its bottom line.

“We know why the NRC is shamelessly promoting a policy that would deregulate and disperse radiation across the country and beyond,” said Dave Ritter, policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The NRC is working to promote the industry, not to regulate it. And if this struggling industry can buy more time by dumping its waste into our homes, then the NRC will do what it can to help in that.”

The NRC’s workshop will be held from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., May 21-22, in the NRC auditorium at 11545 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. The NRC is accepting comments on this issue and the rulemaking until June 30, 2003. Click here to view a draft of Public Citizen’s comments online.