Shallow Burial in Low-Level Waste Dumps Would Far Exceed Radiation Dose Limits, Independent Research Shows
DU Poses Long-Term Risks Comparable to Plutonium-Contaminated Wastes
Takoma Park, Maryland, October 24, 2005: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has handed a stinging reversal to advocates of a New Mexico uranium enrichment facility by requiring licensers to hear testimony from Dr. Arjun Makhijani, an independent expert, on the environmental impacts of disposing of depleted uranium (DU), a waste material that will be generated by the plant. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), the NRC staff, and LES, the corporate consortium that is seeking the plant license, had sought to exclude the Dr. Makhijani’s testimony. Earlier this week the NRC ruled that the ASLB had improperly excluded the testimony and that it should be considered in license hearings scheduled to begin at the NRC headquarters near Washington D.C. on Monday, October 24.
“The NRC ruling that environmental impacts need to be explicitly taken into account in the enrichment plant licensing process completely undermines the premise on which the NRC staff prepared its Environmental Impact Statement for the LES plant,” Dr. Makhijani explained. “The staff’s position and that of LES had been that an environmental impact calculation was unnecessary since DU was Class A waste, the least radioactive and risky low-level category, which could therefore be disposed of in large amounts in shallow burial facilities, such as the one run by Envirocare near Clive, Utah.”
Dr. Makhijani is principal author of two reports on DU prepared for interveners in the NRC license hearings and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), in Takoma Park, Maryland. The interveners are the Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen.
The NRC ruled that its staff and ASLB had been wrong in concluding that the present low-level waste regulations allowed large amounts of DU, such as those from a commercial enrichment plant, to be classified as Class A low-level waste without an explicit environmental impact analysis. An IEER analysis showed that peak radiation doses from burying LES wastes in shallow trenches would produce peak radiation doses at least a hundred times higher than the legal limit of 25 millirem per year. IEER also concluded that proposed DU disposal sites Utah and in Andrews County, Texas are unsuitable and should not be used for wastes the LES plant would generate.
“Land near Clive, Utah, and near the other proposed waste disposal facility in Andrews County, Texas, has been used for grazing in the past,” added Dr. Brice Smith, Senior Scientist at IEER and co-author of the DU reports. “Use of the either site for food crops or ranching in the future could result in radiation doses that are thousands of times larger than the allowable limits.”
The NRC also ordered its staff to examine whether existing low-level waste classification regulations need to be amended in order to take into account the impact of disposing of large amounts of depleted uranium as a generic matter separate from any particular licensing process.
“This NRC decision not only throws the LES plant into question, it also raises the same issue about wastes from a plant proposed by the U.S. Enrichment Corporation for Ohio,” Dr. Makhijani said. “It creates a large new uncertainty about DU disposal methods and costs. The industry will have to go back to the drawing board on costs and methods of DU disposal.”
IEER’s analysis shows that DU waste disposal would very likely not comply with radiation protection rules at any shallow land burial facility. It also found that Waste Control Specialists, the company seeking a license for low-level waste disposal in Texas, is not qualified to receive or handle uranium waste because its application shows no understanding of some of the basic radiological characteristics of uranium.
Putting DU in a proper chemical form, uranium dioxide, treating and encapsulating it for durability, and disposing it of in deep geologic repository would cost $2.5 billion or more for the DU projected to be generated by the proposed LES plant. IEER’s reports on depleted uranium disposal risks and costs are available on its web site.