Analysis: Nuke waste import plan spurs ire

By MEGAN HARRIS, UPI Correspondent  |  April 8, 2008 at 2:20 PM
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A commercial application to import low-level nuclear waste from Italy has sparked fears of more shipments from decommissioned nuclear power plants in Europe, but a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives March 13 would ban imports of foreign radioactive waste.

EnergySolutions, which processes and disposes of about 90 percent of U.S. low-level radioactive waste, submitted an application in September 2007 to import 20,000 tons of waste from Sogin, Italy's government-owned nuclear energy company.

In response to the move, legislation introduced by Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and co-sponsored by fellow House Energy and Commerce Committee members Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., would prohibit import of non-U.S.-origin nuclear waste, with presidential authority to grant an exception if importation would serve a national or international policy goal.

Gordon and others have spoken out against the EnergySolutions application because of the large amount of waste to be imported -- the largest ever -- and because they fear the move sets a precedent for other soon-to-be decommissioned reactors in Europe.

Julie Eubank, a spokeswoman for Gordon, told United Press International in an e-mail message: "When EnergySolutions went public, the company said it is actively looking for decommissioning and disposal contracts in Europe. Europe is decommissioning far more nuclear plants than the U.S., yet many countries in Europe have nowhere to go with this waste. Congressman Gordon is concerned that many countries would be all too happy to ship their waste to the United States."

Eubank added:

"EnergySolutions has an agreement in principle with Sogin to decommission its nuclear plants, but it depends on getting rid of the low-level radioactive waste."

In order to import waste, commercial entities must obtain the permission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the relevant Interstate Compact on Nuclear Waste Disposal -- in this case the Northwest Interstate Compact.

EnergySolutions, which went public in 2007, said in a news release that Gordon's legislation "stripping the National Regulatory Commission of its jurisdiction over an issue within its purview is unwise, unwarranted and unnecessary."

The impact of the Italian waste on U.S. processing and storage facilities may be minimal, but there are several other concerns.

Capacity at U.S. LLRW processing facilities is not facing a crisis, at least for Class A LLRW, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Report.

The report warns, however, there will be no remaining Class B and C waste facility for 36 states after the Barnwell, S.C., plant limits waste to its Compact Region this summer. Class B and C waste represent a small portion of total LLRW and can be stored at source locations if no processing facility is available.

Class A waste will have ample storage space in the near to long term.

According to its application, EnergySolutions would process the waste in Bear Creek, Tenn.

Approximately 33 percent would be recycled for the nuclear industry, 67 percent would be processed in Tennessee and 8 percent of the original amount (approximately 1,600 tons) would be Class A and disposed of at EnergySolutions' site in Clive, Utah.

The application also asks permission to export up to 1,000 tons of contaminated waste back to Italy.

The waste coming from Italy may contain some Class B and C material, but that which cannot be processed down to Class A will be shipped back to Italy, EnergySolutions explained in a written response to questions from the NRC.

But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a non-profit group advocating nuclear safety and sustainable energy, told UPI in a phone interview: "We don't buy the notion that you can reprocess down from B and C to A. The volume is smaller, but you can't change the amount of radioactivity. You can't change the radionuclides."

Mariotte said it's plausible EnergySolutions intends to transport B and C waste back to Italy but noted the Tennessee facility is only able to handle these classes of waste because of the state's lax regulations.

Mike Ewall, founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, shares the concern of many that the Italian shipment represents a dangerous precedent that could only lead to more.

"Some have been warning of this since the early 1990s, with the fact that the NAFTA and GATT agreements open wide doors to this sort of activity," he told UPI in an e-mail.

Further, Ewall said the processing itself can be far more dangerous than the dumping of the remaining waste in an unlined storage facility in Utah.

Processing "can include recycling the radioactive waste into consumer and industrial products or -- even worse -- incineration of the waste, which makes things far worse, by spreading radioactive and toxic chemical pollution into the air, while generating a radioactive ash that will do far more damage -- leachability-wise -- in a landfill than the unburned waste." The only benefit is to save costs by reducing the volume, he said.

LLRW includes contaminated items from research, medical and scientific processes -- as well as material from nuclear reactors that are not classified as high-level radioactive waste or Greater than Class C. LLRW is typically stored onsite until it has decayed and can be disposed of as ordinary trash or until there are sufficient amounts to transport to a low-level waste disposal site, according to information provided at the NRC Web site.

The NRC is accepting public comments on EnergySolutions' application through June 10.

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