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Nuclear Regulatory Commission Preparing to Dump More Radioactive Waste on American Public

Nov. 8, 2002

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Preparing to Dump More Radioactive Waste on American Public

Stating Preference to Release and Recycle Nuclear Waste, Agency Betrays Public Trust to Support Nuclear Corporations

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) recently stated preference to release and recycle radioactive wastes strongly indicates that it is more concerned with assisting the nuclear industry than protecting the public, Public Citizen said today.

In a news release issued Wednesday, the NRC announced that it will press ahead in a rulemaking that could dramatically increase the volume of radioactive waste material that is dumped in unlicensed landfills and recycled into consumer goods. The NRC’s current policy allows all materials (metal, concrete, soil, etc.) to be released or recycled on a case-by-case basis. The agency is exploring allowing widespread recycling of contaminated solid materials into consumer products.

While the NRC’s preference to allow the nuclear industry to disperse much of its waste has been made clear by its actions for many years, the agency is now stating it openly. In written comments submitted with his vote approving the rulemaking procedure, NRC Chairman Richard Meserve discouraged agency staff from trying to “mask the Commission’s continuing support for the release” of the waste.

While the NRC’s news release attempts to put a friendly face on the process, vowing that “NRC staff will seek broad public participation and engage diverse viewpoints,” Meserve’s guidance in his written comments that public “(w)orkshops are resource-intensive and expensive…and additional workshops should be limited” was not mentioned in the release and will likely compromise the public’s ability to voice objections to the plan.

Additionally, Public Citizen said, it is distressing to see how dismissive the NRC has been regarding the National Academies’ March 2002 report on this issue, done at the NRC’s request. This report, while not recommending that the NRC immediately halt the radioactive waste recycling program, did suggest that it take a very cautionary approach and seriously address public concerns on the issue, in part to overcome a “legacy of distrust.” Instead of beginning a broad, deliberative process, as suggested by the Academies’ report, the NRC is opting to proceed with a rulemaking and ignore public concerns.

“The Academies’ report emphasized that the NRC not prescribe an outcome on the issue and that real consideration of public input was essential,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “But in limiting public workshops and stating their preference from the get-go, it looks like they’ve already made a decision. The upcoming ‘process’ will most likely be a public relations maneuver and sham.”

The NRC claims on its Web site that its “primary mission is to protect the public health and safety, and the environment from the effects of radiation from nuclear reactors, materials, and waste facilities.” The agency also agrees with the firmly established scientific tenet that “any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect.” With this in mind, it is particularly alarming to note NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield’s observation in his written comments on the rulemaking 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.” Incredibly, Merrifield goes on to say that “(it) would be nice to have a separate industry devoted to the recycling of radioactive material.”

“One can only assume that the NRC is not concerned about abdicating its regulatory role to protect the public and making cynical calculations of how many additional cancer deaths are ‘acceptable,’ ” said David Ritter, policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The agency knows that this dumping can lead to radioactive consumer products like bicycles and belt buckles. It knows that this practice is wholly unnecessary and its sole beneficiary is the nuclear industry.”

Both the NRC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are addressing the issue of nuclear waste release and recycling. The NRC has jurisdiction over commercial nuclear reactors, while the DOE oversees waste from nuclear weapons facilities and energy research facilities. The DOE also allows case-by-case release or recycle of all materials, except metals.

“The American public has spoken loudly and clearly on this issue before, and that’s why Congress banned the ‘Below Regulatory Concern’ policy in 1992, conceding that radiation is always a concern,” Ritter said. “So now, industry and the so-called regulators are trying to come in the back door via word-play, public relations marketing and outright lies. The industry refuses to accept responsibility for proper handling and disposal of its deadly waste. The only responsible action for it to take is isolate and contain it, not try to ‘dilute’ it by dispersing it across the country in recycled products.”

The NRC is scheduled to complete its rulemaking within three years.