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News from the National Academies
Date: March 9, 2006
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Michelle Strikowsky, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Regulation of 'Low-Activity' Radioactive Wastes Should Be Based on Risk

WASHINGTON -- Wastes containing small concentrations of radioactive material should be regulated based on the risk they pose rather than the type of industry that produced them, as is currently the case, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

So-called low-activity wastes are by far the largest volume of radioactive wastes generated each year in the United States. Some of these wastes come from hospitals, utilities, research institutions, and defense installations where nuclear material is used. Millions of cubic feet of low-activity wastes also arise incidentally every year from non-nuclear enterprises such as mining and water treatment. While low-activity wastes present much less of a radiation hazard than spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive wastes, they can cause health risks if controlled improperly.

The complicated patchwork of regulations currently governing the management and disposal of low-activity wastes gives federal and state agencies adequate authority to protect the public, but the rules are inconsistent, according to the committee that wrote the report. Regulations for some low-activity wastes are overly restrictive, which limits disposal options, while other wastes of equal or greater risk are less strictly regulated. For example, wastes containing uranium or thorium are regulated differently based on whether they arose from ore processing to recover these elements for nuclear applications or from the recovery of other mineral resources.

Low-activity wastes from nuclear utilities and other operations licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be sent along often-lengthy shipping routes to one of only three licensed disposal sites. This is despite the fact that these wastes may be less radioactive than low-activity wastes from other industries that are allowed to use local landfills for waste disposal.

The report says that conducting science-based risk assessments with the public's participation would be the best way to implement what it called a "risk-informed" approach to regulation. Recognizing that it would be difficult to rapidly change a regulatory system that has evolved over 60 years, the committee suggested that agencies adopt the approach in incremental steps. To start with, agencies should work together under their existing authorities to change licenses and permits for specific waste generators or disposal sites. In certain cases, implementing a risk-informed approach may require agencies to rewrite official guidance documents or regulations, or to seek legislative changes.
Agencies should continue to improve efforts to involve citizens in waste-disposal decisions, which can bolster public acceptance of the choices made, the committee added.

Citing significant progress by the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency in developing risk-based standards for low-activity wastes, the report encourages U.S. agencies to collaborate with their counterparts overseas. Using international consensus standards as a basis for U.S. regulations could also help garner public support, the committee noted.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; California Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Department of Defense Executive Agent for Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal; U.S. Department of Energy; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Japanese Institute of Applied Energy; French Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Security; Midwest Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission; U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; and the Southeast Compact Commission for Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management. 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.

Copies of Improving the Regulation and Management of Low-Activity Radioactive Wastes are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board

Committee on Improving Practices for Regulating and Managing Low-Activity Radioactive Waste

David H. Leroy (chair)
Attorney
Leroy Law Offices
Boise, Idaho

Michael T. Ryan (vice chair)
Independent Consultant, and
Editor in Chief, Health Physics
Charleston, S.C.

Edward L. Albenesius
Manager
Advanced Waste Technology Division, and
Senior Advisory Scientist
Savannah River Site
Westinghouse Savannah River Co. (retired)
Aiken, S.C.

Wm. H. Arnold*
General Manager
Advanced Energy Systems Division
Westinghouse Electric Co. (retired)
Coronado, Calif.

François Besnus
Head
Office for Safety Evaluation of Radioactive Waste Disposal
Institute of Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety
Fountenay aux Roses
France

Perry H. Charley
Director
Uranium Education and Geographical Information Systems Programs
Division of Math, Science, and Technology
Dinè College
Shiprock, N.M.

Gail Charnley
Principal
HealthRisk Strategies
Washington, D.C.

Sharon M. Friedman
Professor of Journalism and Communication, and
Director
Science and Environmental Writing Program
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, Pa.

Maurice C. Fuerstenau*
Professor of Metallurgy
Mackay School of Mines
University of Nevada
Reno

James T. Hamilton
Associate Professor of Public Policy, Economics, and
Political Science
Duke University
Durham, N.C.

Ann B. Rappaport
Faculty Member
Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
Tufts University
Medford, Mass.

D. Kip Solomon
Assistant Professor
Department of Geology and Geophysics
University of Utah
Salt Lake City

Kimberly W. Thomas
Division Leader
Chemistry Division
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos, N.M.


RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

John R. Wiley
Study Director


* Member, National Academy of Engineering