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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(Juny 15, 2005) With a vote of 5-0, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners (NRC) postponed proceeding with a rulemaking that would have streamlined the deregulation and release of radioactive waste to unlicensed destinations.

(632.5705) NIRS - Had the rulemaking been accepted, nuclear contaminated materials would have been generically okayed for dumping in regular trash landfills and for use to make roadbeds. Contaminated tools and equipment could be used or sold for reuse without warning or notification. With an additional, non-public step (likely to have been rubber stamped by the NRC) waste could have been "recycled" into consumer products.

The turnaround was remarkable because it was the Commissioners themselves who had strongly directed staff to prepare the waste deregulation rulemaking in the first place! The official reason given for delaying the rulemaking was that NRC has other higher priorities right now. These were not expressly listed but by implication include approving Early Site Permits for new nuclear power reactors (in Illinois, Mississippi and Virginia), licensing new uranium enrichment facilities (in New Mexico and Ohio) and licensing nuclear waste dumps in Nevada (on Western Shoshone Indian land) and Utah (on Skull Valley Goshute Indian land). In addition, NRC is already allowing some nuclear waste to be released from regulatory control on a case-by-case basis and through license amendments. States like Tennessee have licensed nuclear waste "processors" that treat nuclear waste then send some of the remnants to regular garbage dumps in that state.

NIRS suspects that the NRC backed down for now because it wants to proceed with new licenses without the firestorm of public concern that the rulemaking could have triggered. The public does not want radioactive waste in their local garbage dumps, in children's braces and toys, or tools but the proposed "Control of Disposition of Solid Materials" rulemaking would have opened the door for nuclear waste to get out, affecting all of us, globally. The NRC is seeking to the nuclear power industry maintain its undeserved and purchased "clean" image as it seeks enormous federal subsidies. (See energy bill article.) Admitting that nuclear waste is generated and could end up in personal use items could tarnish that illusion.

The NRC staff's preferred alternative for the rulemaking might have been a bit more complicated than the nuclear industry would like. In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency is still deciding whether, and how, to proceed with its rulemaking that would allow nuclear waste to go to solid and hazardous waste facilities (with no nuclear controls) or be managed with a "non-regulatory approach."

In 1986 and 1990, the NRC adopted deregulation policies called "Below Regulatory Concern" (BRC). They similarly would have permitted radioactive waste to go to unlicensed landfills and waste facilities and contaminated metals and other materials to be recycled into consumer products. The BRC Policies created widespread public opposition, media coverage and legislation in numerous states. In 1992 Congress intervened and overturned the NRC's radioactive waste deregulation policies.

In 2002 the Commissioners directed NRC staff to prepare new regulation releasing significant volumes of radioactive wastes from the requirement of being sent to licensed radioactive waste sites. In March 2005 the proposed regulation was sent to the Commission for approval. Numerous environmental groups weighed in opposing it as a revival of the discredited BRC Policy. On 3 June 2005, the Commissioners unanimously rejected the proposed regulation. They did, however, hold out the prospect of possibly reviving it at some time in the future-"two, five, or ten years from now" according to one Commissioner and in 2007 according to another.

The NRC will, however, continue to release nuclear waste under its current case-by-case exemption procedures, which do not require public notice, comment or intervention. For example, NRC staff quietly approved (under 10 CFR 20.2002) sending the decommissioning waste from the closed Haddam Neck (Connecticut) and Yankee Rowe (Massachusetts) nuclear reactors to unlicensed dumps in Idaho and Texas respectively. Opposition from the public and state officials forced cancellation or postponement of those shipments.

Action Needed
In the US we must continue educating the public, waste site operators and workers, recyclers, and transporters about the continuing threat from numerous federal agencies to build our power to block the release of radioactive waste. Internationally, we must educate and engage at every step in every country that moves to deregulate nuclear materials. Because of the global marketplace we are all impacted by actions in every nuclear nation.

Source and contact: Diane D'Arrigo at NIRS