Date: March 21, 2002 Contacts: Jennifer Burris, Media Relations Associate Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New Framework Needed for Disposal of Slightly Radioactive Solid Material
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates the use of uranium and other nuclear substances for civilian purposes, such as electric power generation and medical diagnosis and treatment. It also sets guidelines for its licensees to manage thousands of tons of material and equipment that become slightly radioactive during normal operation of nuclear facilities and machinery. Finding safe and cost-effective ways to dispose of the least-radioactive kinds of materials has proved problematic and controversial for the federal government for three decades. Depending on their condition and other factors, these materials may be sent to specially designed waste disposal facilities, or they may be recycled or reused, which potentially could expose people to very small amounts of radioactivity.
Radioactivity can be found in reinforced buildings that house the "hot" portion of a nuclear reactor, trucks and forklifts, tools, piping, ductwork, and any part of an object that comes in contact with radioactive substances. Most material is contaminated on the surface and can be cleaned through various treatment methods. However, some materials are volume contaminated, which means that radioactivity penetrates the object and is difficult to treat. Currently no guidelines exist to govern the disposal of volume-contaminated material. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and states that assume federal regulatory authority decide how to dispose of this material on a case-by-case basis.
The commission asked the National Academies' National Research Council to recommend changes to the decision-making process for disposition of slightly radioactive solid material, and determine whether sufficient technical information exists to establish a consistent system nationally. Overall, the commission and others have found that the current policy is not explicitly based on risks to human health and is inconsistently applied. For example, some licensees can dispose of material only if no radioactivity is detectable above that in the natural environment, while others can do so if small detectable levels are found.
A new report by the Research Council says that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision-making process is workable and protects public health, but it could benefit from a new framework that uses broad input from stakeholders -- including the general public -- to develop and evaluate options for disposal, reuse, and recycling. The study committee's proposed framework, intended for use as a policy-making tool, incorporates the need to assess health, economic, and environmental impacts, among other factors.
The committee also was asked to look at a draft report -- known as NUREG-1640 -- that the agency intends to use for technical guidance on future policy revisions. The methodology in NUREG-1640 to assess the potential health effects associated with salvage or disposal is state of the art, the committee said. However, more scenarios for disposition, other pathways by which people could be exposed, and the impact of human error on predicted exposure should be considered. If these and other recommended improvements are implemented, NUREG-1640 will provide a sufficient technical basis for the commission's future policy revisions. As a starting point in determining an appropriate dose-based standard for the disposition of material, the committee recommended using 1 millirem per year (10 micro-Sievert per year), which is a small fraction of the radiation received annually from natural and artificial sources, such as cosmic rays and medical X-rays. Radiation can trigger cancer or cause other damage to the body's organs and tissues.
In its report, the committee looked at three general categories for disposal of slightly radioactive solid material: clearance, conditional clearance, and no release. "Clearance" means that the material meets the criteria of licensing authorities to be reused without restriction, recycled into a consumer product, or disposed of in a landfill. Many participants in the committee's information-gathering meetings expressed concern about this category. Environmental groups felt that allowing formerly contaminated material to be used in consumer products would create an unnecessary health risk with unknown effects. Steel and concrete industry representatives thought their products would be stigmatized if it became known that some of them might include radioactive contamination, no matter how slight. Licensee representatives voiced concerns about liability risks from clearance, and about economic costs if no clearance were allowed. The report offers an outline for how the commission can evaluate the potential impacts of various options.
"Conditional clearance" means that material must be used in a specified application. For example, slightly radioactive metal released under this standard might be melted into shielding blocks for use at nuclear facilities, but subject to special handling controls in the process. Conditional clearance also could include disposal in municipal solid waste landfills, construction and demolition waste landfills, and industrial nonhazardous landfills. Such material would not be used in general commerce.
"No release" means that materials remain under the regulatory control of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or an agreement state that has assumed the commission's authority to regulate certain licensees. Under this option today, these materials would be sent to Envirocare of Utah in Clive, Utah, or one of two disposal facilities licensed to accept all types of low-level radioactive waste -- Chem-Nuclear Systems in Barnwell, S.C., or U.S. Ecology in Richland, Wash. The committee estimated that the total cost to dispose of all slightly radioactive metal and concrete from U.S. power reactors would be between $4.5 billion and $11.7 billion. Comparatively, material that meets the terms of conditional clearance can be sent to a landfill with estimated costs ranging from $300 million to $1 billion.
In the future, the amount of slightly radioactive solid material requiring some form of disposal is likely to increase once nuclear power plants begin to close. Metal and concrete will constitute the greatest volume of slightly radioactive solid material. The committee cautioned that its recommendations apply only to slightly radioactive solid material licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and agreement states, and not to the disposition of materials from the closing of government nuclear weapons facilities.
The study was funded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.