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Tainted NRC Process on Radioactive Waste Recycling Continues

May 9, 2000

Tainted NRC Process on Radioactive Waste Recycling Continues

Adoption of International Standards Used as Justification for
Radioactive Recycling

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In ordering a study of the international recommended regulations for recycling radioactive waste, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is further biasing its own standard-setting process towards the widespread recycling of contaminated materials into household products, Public Citizen charged today at an NRC meeting concerning the standard-setting rulemaking process.

The ultimate result likely will be a recommendation from the NRC to permit an international market for extensive recycling of radioactive waste into such products as braces for teeth, baby strollers and frying pans — virtually everything made out of carbon steel, stainless steel, nickel, copper or aluminum, said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. Currently, contaminated waste is recycled on a case by case basis.

The NRC is in the process of setting a standard for the amount of radiation consumers can be exposed to from household products made from radioactive waste. The commission recently directed its staff to ask the National Academy of Science (NAS) Board on Energy and Environmental Systems to conduct a nine-month study on the recycling of radioactive materials.

A key component of that study is an analysis of the way other countries are proposing to recycle the waste. The international recommendations will likely favor recycling the waste because the International Atomic Energy Agency — whose mission is to promote the use of nuclear technology and which is a big booster of recycling radioactive waste into household products — is heavily involved in setting recycling standards in other countries.

“Looking to the International Atomic Energy Agency for recommendations on how to handle radioactive waste is like asking the fox for tips on guarding the henhouse,” Hauter said. “The NRC is trying to use this study to mask the fact that its own process is skewed.”

The NRC is promoting radioactive recycling through its support of international standards. Different standards “could adversely affect international trade,” the staff wrote in a document released recently. Even the language the NRC uses in requesting the NAS study shows the Commission?s bias; it requested “alternatives for the control of slightly radioactive materials” (emphasis added).

Decades of research shows that exposure to radiation is a threat to human health. Any exposure to radiation, no matter how small, results in some health risk. Diluting radiation through recycling cannot reduce the risk to society as a whole, because the total number of people exposed to radiation will increase as more products contain radioactive materials.

“Despite widespread public opposition, the nuclear industry is pushing the government to permit more recycling of contaminated waste from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities because it is far less expensive to sell the waste than to isolate it from humans and the environment. Government agencies charged with protecting people from exposure to radioactive waste instead appear to be helping the nuclear industry to find a way to release the material into products that are distributed nationwide,” Hauter said.

The NRC staff paper did not deal adequately with several of the problems that have tainted this rulemaking:

* The NRC paid millions of dollars to a contractor with a conflict of interest to prepare the technical analysis for the commission on radioactive recycling;

* The commission prejudged the outcome of the rulemaking by discussing in documents that it was planning to set a standard that would allow the release of contaminated materials. The Commission has not demonstrated that it would even consider an outcome that does not result in the release of radioactive materials;

* The NRC has not addressed why it has failed to consider in its technical documents that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is the primary source of metallic radioactive waste, the type of waste to be recycled into household products. The DOE?s generates a lot more metallic radioactive waste than power plants, and this military waste is potentially far more dangerous than similar waste from power plants because it contains different radioactive elements. The commission has not considered the implications of the release of volumes of such dangerous materials into the environment.

“The entire rulemaking process has been sullied,” Hauter said. “It is shoddy and biased. The integrity of the rulemaking requires affirmative demonstration that alternatives — including no release of radioactive waste — are seriously and fairly considered. The NRC simply isn?t doing that.”