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Weakening of nuclear transport regulations

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#568
17/05/2002
Article

(May 17, 2002) The United States Department of Transportation (DOT), in conjunction with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), is proposing to adopt United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear transport regulations. These may make nuclear transport more dangerous and may even help pave the way for radioactively contaminated materials to be "recycled" into everyday items.

(568.5408) NIRS - The IAEA regulations (TS-R-1) allow radioactive materials under certain circumstances to be transported as if they are not radioactive, in addition to other provisions. Other nations and the European road and rail organizations are also being pressured under the guise of "harmonization" to accept these requirements.

Deregulation of radioactive materials has been repeatedly defeated by massive popular opposition when proposed by other US agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy). If approved, this rule would serve as a technical precedent for deregulating radioactive wastes and materials in the US and around the world.

Some main concerns are:

  1. the process by which nuclear advocates, including federal regulators, use the United Nations/ IAEA procedures to overcome clear national mandates against radioactive waste deregulation;
  2. the deliberate dispersal of radioactive materials into raw materials, products, the marketplace and our surroundings;
  3. the overall reduction in protections in the TS-R-1 transport regulations in many of its provisions; and
  4. the fact that US DOT rules generally preempt state and local authority, undermining more protective laws and regulations.

Anti-democratic process
IAEA transport requirements are continuously developed behind closed doors with no opportunity for public input. The TSR-1 regulations took a routine path through the United Nations (UN) committees of nuclear advocates, avoiding the light of public scrutiny, to become regulations for UN transport organizations, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These, and most, UN organizations have cooperative agreements with the IAEA that facilitate getting the nuclear industry's desired policies into international requirements or statements.

Although US government officials participated in the IAEA, UN, ICAO and IMO meetings, they did not effectively represent or inform the concerned public. There are indications that they expressed some concerns with IAEA on its secretive, exclusive habits, but the only visible result so far is a reduction (from $80 to $17) in the price the public must (still) pay to get a copy of the IAEA documents proposed to become our governing regulations. Access to information in these rulemakings is very challenging and the content of the transport regulations is complex, making it more difficult for the public to play an active role.

Facilitating radioactive "recycling"
Among the many complicated and protection-reducing transport schemes proposed in TSR-1, is the attempt to legalize the exemption of varying amounts of every radionuclide from nuclear transport regulations. This will also remove one of the obstacles to the dispersal of radioactively contaminated substances into daily commerce, raw materials, personal items, vehicles, buildings, children's toys and furniture, soil, concrete, medical devices and more.

A new chart is being proposed that would set exempt concentration and quantity levels for releasing nuclear shipments from transport regulations. The right side columns in the new chart list Exempt Concentrations. These are the very same concentrations that the nuclear establishment is trying to get adopted in every country to allow radioactive waste release and recycling. US DOT and the rest of the world all currently have a uniform exempt concentration for any radioactive materials (70 becquerels per gram).

NIRS does not support any level of exemption, but this 70 becquerels per gram is the existing world value that previous secret international rulemakings brought us. Now, supposedly based on "science", the nuclear establishment wants to change these numbers - and well over half of them (222 of the 382 listed) go up, thereby increasing the exempt concentrations for the majority of radionuclides. NIRS questions and challenges the "science" being used to justify TS-R-1 exemptions. We even more adamantly oppose any increases in those levels and have suggested that only reduced levels be adopted if changes are made.

The proposed chart lists exempt amounts or quantities of radioactive materials in entire shipments (consignments). Large amounts of some radioactive elements can be transported as if not radioactive. There are no comparable exemptions in the existing regulations. The amounts listed appear to have the potential to give unsuspecting members of the public doses near or exceeding allowable worker inhalation doses in the US.

Additional Concerns
US DOT and NRC share authority over nuclear waste transport in the US and are intending to incorporate the IAEA's 1996 radioactive transport regulations plus a few additional provisions. The justification is we need to harmonize our standards internationally, but they were already in harmony. The new regulations (TS-R-1) are being adopted to relax protections and let more radioactive waste out into commerce unregulated. At a time when we could be facing dramatic increases in the amount of nuclear material on roads, rails, ships, planes and barges in the US and internationally, the trend should be toward tightening up and increasing protections.

The NRC and DOT proposals also appear to weaken requirements for Type B containers (which are used for irradiated fuel transport), uranium hexafluoride packaging, plutonium transport requirements, surface contamination levels on Type B containers, design changes for dual purpose casks and "grandfathering" of old cask designs. For those who follow transport regulations, the "A1" and "A2" values which determine the need for and type of transport containers required, are being changed. One result is supposedly a determination that the double containers now required in the US for plutonium shipments are not necessary and a proposal to do away with that requirement.

The deadline for comment to US NRC and US DOT is July 29, 2002 and public hearings will be held in Chicago on 4 June and in Rockville, MD on 24 June.

References:

  1. 67 FR 83:21328-388 April 30, 2002, DOT RSPA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Docket No. RSPA -99-6283 (HM 230) Hazardous Materials Regulations; Compatibility with IAEA, and
    67 FR 83:21390-484 April 30, 2002, NRC Proposed Rule: Compatibility with IAEA Transportation Safety Standards (TS-R-1) & other transport amendments, and
    IAEA "Regulations for the Safe Transport of Radioactive Material," 1996 Edition, ST-1, now TS-R-1.
  2. proposed 49 CFR 173.436 in the DOT regs or IAEA TSR-1 Section IV Table I columns 3 and 4.

Source and contact: D. D'Arrigo at NIRS (+1 202 328 0002 ext. 16, dianed@nirs.org)