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#183 - Radiation -- Part 1: Coming Your Way: Radioactive Garbage, 29-May-1990

Many of us have spent so much time fighting hazardous chemicals,
leaking landfills, and municipal incinerators that we have not had time
to focus on another serious problem that will soon affect us all:
growing stockpiles of so-called "low-level" radioactive wastes that
have to be put somewhere. These wastes are created by nuclear power
plants (which split uranium atoms to make electricity) and by medical
labs and hospitals (for diagnosis and therapy, for example). Over two-
thirds of the volume and over 80% of the radioactivity in the nation's
low-level radwaste today come from nuclear power plants; by the year
2020, 80% of the volume and 97% of the radioactivity will come from
nuclear power plants (because, by then, old nuclear plants will be
dismantled and will themselves become part of the waste stream). Low-
level radwaste is currently being sent to the nation's three operating
radwaste landfills (at Beatty, Nevada, Richland, Washington, and
Barnwell, South Carolina). Beatty and Barnwell will fill up and be
closed by 1993. Washington state plans to restrict Richland's intake to
locally-produced radwastes. Where will the stuff go after 1993?

The government has two answers to this question. One answer is an
effort to site 16 new low-level radioactive wastes landfills in New
York, Maine, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Illinois,
Michigan, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington state, Nevada, Colorado,
South Carolina, North Carolina, and California.

The federal government's other answer is to press ahead with a plan to
simply declare 1/3 of the nation's "low-level" radioactive waste "below
regulatory concern" (BRC) and thus to remove these materials from the
"radioactive waste" category entirely. Then these BRC radwastes will be
allowed to go wherever municipal trash is going today. If your
community has a dump, BRC radioactive materials will be allowed into
your dump; if you incinerate, you'll be allowed to incinerate
radioactive materials; since liquid wastes are now entering your town
sewer, you'll be able to have radioactive liquids (for example, from
laboratory drains) entering your sewage treatment plant and if you then
compost your sewage sludge, you'll be allowed to have radioactivity in
your compost; if you recycle, you'll be able to recycle radioactive
materials which may then be remanufactured into radioactive household
products such as appliances or kitchen utensils.

Why would our government declare millions of cubic feet of radioactiuve
materials "below regulatory concern?" The reason is simple: economics.
Nuclear power is brought to you by a partnership between Uncle Sam and
big companies like Westinghouse and G.E. Since these companies still
hope to sell the American public more nuclear power plants (it's
potentially a partial answer to the greenhouse global warming problem;
another possible solution is solar energy, but solar suffers from a
fatal disadvantage: Westinghouse and G.E. can't sell sunlight), the
Bush administration is trying to reduce the costs of nuclear energy by
declaring large quantities of radioactive wastes "below regulatory
concern" so they can be dumped cheaply. It's just one more way that
Uncle Sam can subsidize the nuclear power industry, to reward
industrial friends who may later make substantial campaign

BRC would be a major gift to the nuclear industry. As the nation's
nuclear power plants approach the end of their useful lifetimes (about
25 years), they must be dismantled piece by piece and put somewhere.
All the radioactive pipes, tubes, tanks, tools, instruments, gauges,
filters, and so forth will vastly increase the nation's stockpile of
"low-level" radioactive wastes. If all these wastes have to be handled
with special care and buried in special vaults under ground (or above
ground) at $40 per cubic foot (or more), the total costs of nuclear
energy will increase substantially. At today's prices, the BRC program
would save the nuclear power industry an estimated billion dollars over
the next 20 years. And when the government gets around to cleaning up
the nation's enormous, contaminated nuclear weapons sites (such as
Fernald, Ohio, Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Hanford, Washington--see RHWN
#124), a BRC program could reduce cleanup costs by many billions of

The key problem with the BRC proposal is that it seems certain to
increase exposure of the general public to radiation. Why is this bad?

To begin with, medical doctors who use radiation for diagnosis or
therapy agreed on ethical standards long ago. Medical views of
radiation are based on the assumption that any amount of radiation
causes some harm and some risk of serious consequences (such as genetic
damage or cancer). Medical ethics dictate that a person should not be
exposed to any radiation unless that person derives a benefit from the
exposure. Secondly, the general public has a right to know, a right to
be informed before they are exposed to any hazards such as radiation.
The BRC program will result in people being exposed without their
knowing it, and the exposed indivduals will very likely not have
received any benefits from the sources of the exposures. Thus the BRC
program violates medical ethics.

The federal government ignores these ethical standards and simply says
that existing exposure limits for radiation are safe enough to protect
the public. The current regulations are intended to allow the
development of one fatal cancer in every group of 100,000 exposed
individuals. The government's position seems to be that it's OK to risk
killing one out of every 100,000 Americans in order to reduce costs for
the nuclear power industry. Thomas Cochran, a physicist with Natural
Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that, according to the
government's logic, "it is 'BRC' to randomly fire a bullet into a
crowded Manhattan street on the basis that the individual risk to a
person in New York City is less than one in several million." In short,
it just doesn't make sense, and isn't ethical, to expose the general
public to additional radiation if it can be avoided. Furthermore, there
is a great deal of new evidence (which we will discuss later in this
series) indicating that radiation is five to 10 times more dangerous
than was believed when current exposure limits were set. Radiation--
particularly at low levels of exposure--is now thought to be much more
dangerous to humans than was previously believed. Lastly, since the
government does not intend to monitor solid waste to see if permissible
radiation levels are being exceeded (by accident or more likely by
unscrupulous waste haulers), the BRC program appears to be opening the
door for abuses and violations that will further endanger the public
and which cannot be controlled.

The term "low-level" does not accurately describe the hazards from some
"low-level" radwastes. For example, "low-level" wastes may contain
dangerous amounts of nickel-63 (a radioactive form of the metal,
nickel), which has a half-life of about 100 years and will therefore
remain radioactive for about 1000 years. The well- known nuclear
physicist, Theodore Taylor, says he used to think the problem of
radwaste disposal was "politically difficult because of the NIMBY [not
in my back yard] syndrome, but that technically it was probably
solvable. Well," he says, "I don't think that anymore. I don't see any
evidence of a solution that we can say with certainty will get rid of
this stuff safely."

What can you do? 1) Inform yourself. For example, get: Scott Saleska,
"Low-Level Radioactive Waste: Gamma Rays in the Garbage," BULLETIN OF
THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS (April, 1990), pgs. 19-25. For a good (though
somewhat out-of-date), detailed review of the problems of radioactive
waste, get Ronnie Lipschutz, RADIOACTIVE WASTE (Cambridge, MA:
Ballinger, 1980).

2) Keep in touch with Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS), 1616
P Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 328-0002, and the Radioactive
Waste Campaign, 625 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10012; (212) 473-

3) Get involved in your state's plan to deal with radioactive wastes.
Your involvement is the key.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: radioactive waste; llw; nickel-63; nuclear power
plants; nv; wa; sc; landfilling; brc; nuclear information resource
service; scott saleska;