Research Council Withholds Seal of Approval of Radioactive Recycling but Avoids Key Questions

March 21, 2002

Research Council Withholds Seal of Approval of Radioactive Recycling but Avoids Key Questions

Council Insists That Nuclear Regulatory Commission Overcome “Legacy of Institutional Distrust”

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? A long-awaited report rightly admonishes the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for ignoring the public?s concerns about a proposal to widely recycle radioactive materials into industrial and household goods.

The report, issued today by the National Research Council,properly calls for the NRC to alter its approach in dealing with solid radioactive wastes. It outlines how the nuclear agency has done little to seriously address the legitimate concerns of citizens while simultaneously advancing a scheme that would reduce costs and liabilities for the nuclear industry. It also details the NRC’s past betrayals of public trust on the radioactive release and recycling, and points out that support for the practice generally comes from the nuclear industry. The report reviews the history of NRC efforts to deregulate radioactive materials so they could be treated as if they were not radioactive.

Still, the report, entitled “The Disposition Dilemma: Controlling the Release of Solid Materials from Nuclear Regulatory Commission-Licensed Facilities,” fails to address a key issue: whether it is responsible to allow nuclear waste to be widely dispersed. It also avoids the question of what should be done with radioactive wastes from nuclear power and weapons facilities, even though the council had been given a clear license to make a detailed recommendation. The National Research Council is a nonprofit group that is part of the National Academies and advises the government.

“Fortunately for the American public, the report states the obvious,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “People with very legitimate concerns have not been treated seriously by the NRC, and the primary supporter of this scheme is ? you guessed it ? the nuclear industry, which could save billions or even make millions in profits by recycling large quantities of nuclear waste into frying pans and zippers. If the NRC were to listen to the public rather than the industry, this practice would cease.”

Radioactive materials are currently released for recycling on a case-by-case basis. However, the government is considering standardizing this practice, which would greatly increase the amount of waste released.

As the NRC and the nuclear industry have faced strong resistance to the “recycling” of nuclear waste from consumer and environmental groups, unions, and the steel and concrete industries, it has dismissed the concerns as “public perception” problems. The NRC likely had counted on a positive report from the council to provide a green light for recycling and to lend an air of credibility to the project. That the council did not place its imprimatur on the project is a significant setback for the NRC and the nuclear industry, Hauter said.

In fact, the Research Council essentially told the NRC to again re-examine recycling ? but this time with the involvement of a “broad range” of groups.

Today’s report redirects the NRC in fundamental ways. Four of its seven recommendations call for the NRC to change the way it deals with solid radioactive wastes by doing such things as developing a new decision-making process, covering an expanded range of alternatives and significantly revising technical support documents.

However, the council did not address whether it is prudent to disperse radioactive materials instead of isolate the waste from the public.

David Ritter, policy analyst with Critical Mass questioned why the committee did not go further. “The Research Council committee’s report doesn?t recommend that these wastes not be released or recycled,” he said. “For an organization that claims to promote science ‘for the general welfare,’ one would think that preventing radiation exposures to the public would be a priority. Better yet, if the wastes are presenting such a dilemma, why not consider halting further waste production?”

While today’s report could put up a significant roadblock for the NRC’s plans to boost recycling, it remains to be seen whether the NRC will begin to take the concerns of the public and non-nuclear industries seriously. Thus far, this ill-advised practice is based solely on economic concerns and has disregarded greater questions of sound science, public health and rational public policy, Ritter said.