(May 7, 2004) Despite four years of public participation, expressions of opposition to and concern with the proposals by US agencies to "harmonize" with international transport recommendations, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted new regulations for radioactive transport in January 2004. NIRS and numerous other public interest, environmental and religious groups and individuals across the US are challenging a portion of the rule that reduces public protections by allowing more radioactivity to move on roads, rails, planes and waterways without regulatory control.
(609.5605) NIRS - Among other provisions that weaken public and worker protection from nuclear materials in transit, the regulations exempt various amounts of every radionuclide (radioactive forms of each element) from placarding, manifesting and tracking. A whole new category of exempt quantities "per consignment," which did not exist in previous regulations, is being adopted. In addition, the previously allowed exempt concentration level (70 bequerels per gram or approximately 2 nanoCuries per gram of any one or combination of radionuclides) is being replaced with different levels for each radionuclide. For more than half of the radionuclides, the exempt concentrations will increase, thus increasing the amount of unregulated nuclear material being shipped without any notice or regulatory control.
"At a time of heightened alert and concern about dirty bombs, the federal government is dramatically increasing the amount of nuclear material that can be transported routinely into and through the US without any labeling or controls. This is the exact wrong time for US agencies to let go of nuclear materials and wastes," stated Diane D'Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "It will make it harder to watch for and detect dirty bombs because there will be more false positives in everyday transport."
"Workers and the public will be exposed to radiation without their knowledge or consent. It is forced radiation exposure," charged David Ritter, Policy Analyst at Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.
Transport workers in both the rail and trucking industries and those involved in cleaning up accidents could be routinely exposed to radiation. First responders, customs agents and those who load and unload shipments will also come into contact with unlabeled nuclear materials. Since the materials could go to municipal and industrial landfills, incinerators and scrap recycling centers, workers at those sites could be regularly exposed to more radiation.
"NRC and DOT's generic exemptions will facilitate the deregulation of nuclear waste and use of contaminated materials to make household items and building supplies. That is the real motivation," said Dr. Judith Johnsrud of the Sierra Club, "to make it easier for other federal and even state nuclear agencies to treat nuclear waste as if it is not radioactive."
Neither NRC nor DOT can provide any meaningful justification for the exemptions for relaxing restrictions on nuclear materials. The exempt amounts are the same as those proposed by international nuclear advocacy organizations (IAEA and Euratom) to allow nuclear waste to be deregulated or "cleared." Once "cleared" from nuclear controls, the radioactive material can enter the marketplace as regular trash or be sold to recyclers to make consumer goods like cars and toys and to build civil engineering projects like roads, playgrounds or parking lots.
"It is not a coincidence. It's a deliberate attempt to by the Bush Administration agencies to bypass the American public's opposition to nuclear waste deregulation and get it into US law," said Michael Welch of the Redwood Alliance. "DOT and NRC are teaming up with the global nuclear power and weapons industry to make it cheaper to run and decommission nuclear reactors and support facilities."
The Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy are all in the various stages of deregulating nuclear wastes over which they have jurisdiction.
"Removing existing requirements for labeling in transit will make it easier for those agencies to let nuclear wastes to get out into commerce. The public will be exposed both during transport and then again from the products and buildings made from contaminated materials," explained Dan Hirsch, President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap.
Since both US agencies share responsibility for radioactive transport in the US, they coordinated adoption of the same exemption regulations. NIRS et al are challenging the rules of both agencies. The DOT is expected to respond to the challenge by May 25, 2004. The case against the NRC is on hold in the 9th Circuit of US Federal Court until the DOT responds.
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