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#302 - 'Low-Level' Radioactive Waste -- Part 1: Fifty Years Of Failure, 08-Sep-1992

By the end of this year--four months from now--all 50 states in the
U.S. are supposed to start operating "low level" radioactive waste
disposal sites, which means shallow holes in the ground for burial, or,
in a couple of states, buried concrete bunkers. As of January, 1992, it
appeared that 11 states might make the deadline. Now even those 11 seem
unlikely to make it. In short, the nation's "low-level" radioactive
waste program has come unraveled.

In truth the program was probably doomed from the beginning. With high
hopes, Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act in
1980. At that time three states (South Carolina, Nevada, and Washington
state) had "low-level" radwaste dumps, which they were threatening to
close because they resented the other 47 states getting a free ride. In
addition, the dumps in South Carolina and Nevada were nearly full, so
Congress acted to resolve the growing problem.

The 1980 law did two things: it made each state responsible for its own
low-level waste (LLW), and it encouraged the formation of multi-state
compacts (agreements) to facilitate waste disposal.

But that law didn't work. Congress had to approve each compact;
whenever a compact was proposed that included a state with an existing
disposal site (S.C., Wa., or Nv.) representatives from states outside
the proposed compact voted against it, evidently because it meant the
end of their dumping privileges at existing sites.[1]

As the January, 1986, deadline approached, it was obvious the 1980 law
wasn't working, so Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste
Policy Amendments Act of 1985. This contained a hammer: any state that
hadn't joined an interstate compact, or built its own disposal site, by
January 1, 1996 had to "take title" (ownership) to all the low-level
radioactive waste within its borders. This would relieve industrial
generators (mainly nuclear reactor owners) of a difficult liability
problem, and was supposed to light a fire under the states.

However, New York and others sued and on June 19, 1992, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that the "take title" provision of the 1985 law was
unconstitutional. With this hammer gone, states are now free to think
more creatively about so-called "low-level" radioactive waste.

There is nothing "low level" about low-level radioactive waste besides
its name. Low-level radwaste contains long-lived and high-hazard
radioactive materials. Although it sometimes seems that government
officials want the public to believe that low-level waste (LLW) is
produced only by hospitals and cancer research, the fact is 80% of "low
level" radioactive waste is produced by nuclear power plants and 2% or
less is medical in origin. Knowing this, we can see that the "take
title" provision of the 1985 law was really a veiled attempt to solve a
sticky problem for the nuclear power industry, passing liability on to
taxpayers for industry's dumb mistakes.

Low-level waste is defined by law as any radioactive waste that is not
high-level waste (HLW), is not uranium mill tailings, and is not
transuranic waste (TRU).

High-level waste, or HLW, is the intensely radioactive fuel rods
removed from a nuclear power reactor (a machine that splits atoms to
make radioactive heat to boil water to make steam to make electricity).

Uranium tailings are the radioactive sand left heaped on the ground
after uranium has been mined from the deep earth, then crushed and
processed to extract a portion of its radioactivity. Uranium--
elaborately processed in taxpayer-funded "enrichment" plants--is the
fuel for nuclear reactors.

Transuranic waste or TRU is waste containing elements heavier than
uranium, such as plutonium; TRU waste has mostly been created by
careless manufacture of nuclear weapons, and by a botched
industry/government attempt at West Valley, New York to "reprocess"
high-level waste so it could be re-used as reactor fuel.

HLW and TRU waste are exceedingly dangerous. If a human were to stand
near a bundle of unshielded high-level waste, he or she would receive a
lethal dose of radioactivity in 30 seconds or so. TRU is exquisitely
toxic because a tiny amount, much smaller than a fly speck, is
sufficient to cause lung cancer if it gets into a person's lungs.

High-level waste is presently being stored in pools of water at the
reactors where it has been created, but some 30 reactors will be out of
storage space by about 1995, so Uncle Sam is trying once again to pull
industry's chestnuts out of the fire by boring a deep tunnel into hard
rock at Yucca Mountain, Nevada for "permanent" storage of HLW. Even if
the Yucca Mountain dump gets built, it won't be ready by 1995, so Uncle
Sam wrote a letter in 1991 to every state governor and every Indian
tribe, offering them large sums of money if they would consider
accepting a "temporary" MRS (monitored retrievable storage) unit for
high-level waste. An MRS is basically a concrete bunker filled with
intensely hot radioactive fuel rods from reactors. Most native people
view this MRS proposal as just one more example of exploitation at best
and genocide at worst. Few are fooled.

Uncle Sam is trying to solve the TRU waste problem by building a $30-
billion tunnel a half-mile below ground in the salt beds near Carlsbad
Caverns in southeastern New Mexico, a project called WIPP (Waste
Isolation Pilot Plant). Water is already leaking into the site and the
roof keeps crumbling, so WIPP is in serious difficulty, though Congress
may approve it anyway.

Uranium tailings won't fit back into the deep mines they came out of,
because their volume increased when the radioactive rock was crushed.
So they are left in enormous heaps on the ground, constantly exuding
radioactive gas and blowing on the wind. Uncle Sam hasn't a clue what
to do with these, except leave them for our grandchildren, or their
grandchildren, to deal with.

Back to low-level waste. Low-level waste is anything that doesn't fit
into the categories described above: HLW, TRU, and uranium tailings.

There are two basic sources of low-level waste (besides medical wastes,
which are insignificant in amount, and which are easily manageable
because they have short half-lives): there is "fuel-related waste"
which results from cleaning the large volumes of water used at nuclear
power reactors, plus some radioactive clothing, tools, paper and
filters--generally high in volume and low in radioactivity; and there
is "neutron-activated waste" which results from the intense
radioactivity inside a nuclear power plant. Neutrons strike reactor
parts (instruments, pipes, and so forth) and make them radioactive;
these are low in volume but high in radioactivity. Mixed together,
these two kinds of waste make up LLW, and they are dangerous and long-

Despite the nature of the problem (dangerous and of long duration) and
despite enormous sums of taxpayer money pumped into solving the nuclear
industry's waste problems, the federal Department of Energy (DOE) and
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have planned for nothing
more than burying the stuff in a shallow hole in the ground. Even
states like New York that are talking about putting LLW into concrete
bunkers are talking about burying the bunkers so they will be out of
sight and out of mind. The bunkers are being called "permanent"
solutions. But some LLW, like Nickel-59, with a half-life of 80,000
years will remain radioactive and dangerous for upwards of 750,000
years. Humans have no experience making any container that can last
that long. The human species itself, in its present form, is less than
100,000 years old. Who really believes we can build a radioactive waste
repository that will last 250,000 to a million years? Only the nation's
radioactive waste managers, who seem to suffer from a kitty-litter
mentality, constantly seeking new ways to bury their doo-doo. Even
though the public is paying for it, the public isn't buying it.

And that is the key failure of the nation's radioactive waste programs.
The public knows that these burial solutions can't work, but the door
has been closed to fresh ideas. The public's concern doesn't stem from
vague, unsubstantiated fears about radioactivity, as some industry
spokespeople would have us believe. The public's fear stems from 50
years of actual engineering performance: five decades of engineering
and management failures. The nation has operated six official
radioactive waste disposal sites over the past 50 years; three of them
are now closed and have radioactivity leaking off-site. Two more will
close in early 1993 and the best estimate is that they will begin
leaking radioactivity into the environment within a decade or two.

Despite the embarrasing failure of the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Nixon-Ford-
Carter-Reagan-Bush governments to solve these problems, all is not
lost. The safe energy movement in the U.S. has become quite
sophisticated about these problems and is now in a position to offer
real solutions.[2],3,4 Of course these are modern solutions and they
call for a pollution-prevention approach. Recognizing that dangerous
wastes will almost inevitably escape, then spread into our air, water
and food supplies, a modern approach requires that we stop making
dangerous, long-lived wastes. Existing wastes would be placed above-
ground for the forseeable future, in specially-designed containers
which could be watched closely for leakage. And the people making the
stuff would pay 100% of the bill--no tax dollars to bail out the
nuclear industry's dumb mistakes.

More than any other single issue, nuclear wastes (and the nuclear
reactors that create the bulk of them) distinguish the old, failed
industrial regime from the advocates of modern economic development.
Nothing about nuclear reactor technology or nuclear bomb technology is
sustainable. Nuclear is a dangerous, destructive, dead-end technology.
If we don't end it, it will surely end us.

--Peter Montague


[1] William Gruber, "The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compacts," EI
DIGEST (August, 1990), pgs. 27-30.

[2] Marvin Resnikoff and others, "LOW LEVEL" RADIOACTIVE WASTE; MYTH
BUSTER'S #8 (Washington, D.C.: Safe Energy Communication Council,
1992). An excellent 16-page pamphlet; $4 from Safe Energy Communication
Council, 1717 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite LL215, Washington, DC
20036; (202) 483-8491.

[3] Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, HIGH-LEVEL DOLLARS, LOW-LEVEL
SENSE (New York: Apex Press, 1992). $15.00 from: Institute for Energy
and Environmental Research [IEER], 6935 Laurel Avenue, Takoma Park, MD
20912; phone (301) 270-5500. An excellent short book proposing

[4] Scott Saleska, Ken Bossong and others, NUCLEAR LEGACY, AN OVERVIEW
(Washington, D.C.: Public Citizen, Critical Mass Energy Project, [215
Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003; phone (202) 546-4996]
September, 1989). 165 pages, $20.00. This encyclopedic overview of the
nation's radioactive waste problems is packed with useful facts and

Descriptor terms: radioactive waste; llw; hlw; transuranic waste; mrs;
uranium tailings; doe; epa; nuclear power;

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