USW Opposes Changes to Federal Rule on Very Low-Level Waste Disposal

Very low-level waste (VLLW) could soon be filling local landfills if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reinterprets an existing rule, a change the USW opposes.

VLLW refers to the least radioactive form of Class A low-level radioactive waste. It includes the concrete, soil and other materials generated when nuclear power plants are decommissioned. Regulators consider it safe enough for disposal in landfills not designed for handling radioactive waste.

Four U.S. facilities licensed to accept low-level waste currently accept this material. The NRC can, under current regulations, approve land burial of this waste at hazardous waste and municipal landfills on a case-by-case basis.

The NRC is considering a rule change that would allow landfills to accept this waste without getting the agency’s approval for every shipment. Landfill operators applying for an agency exemption would have to meet specific restrictions, including a cumulative dose limit under 25 millirem from all disposals in any year.

The USW has three major concerns with this rule, USW Vice President Roxanne Brown wrote in her May 19 remarks to the NRC during the public comment period, which lasts until July 20.

First, very low-level waste is not defined by statute or in the NRC’s regulations and is vaguely defined. 

“Simply referring to this type of waste provides insufficient protection to workers and the communities surrounding the receiving company’s premises and the disposal site or sites,” Brown wrote.

Second, updating the rule would allow workers with little or no training to handle radioactive material. This could lead to a higher chance for mishandling of the waste or improper disposal.

“Putting nuclear waste, of any dosage level, in the hands of undertrained and unqualified workers is not only a bad decision for business and the environment, but hazardous to the people doing the work,” Brown wrote.

Third, the proposed rule lacks monitoring of soil and ground water at and around the exempt dumping site to check for unexpected and increased radiological contamination. Many landfills get repurposed for public use when they are closed. They become golf courses, youth soccer fields, amphitheaters and places for other activities.

“At USW-represented facilities, we have experienced soil and water contamination that was not expected,” Brown wrote. “The clean-up for this contamination has substantially burdened American taxpayers and the environment.”

In light of these issues, the USW urged the NRC to not change the existing rule.

“Given the long-term effects of solid waste disposal, a case-by-case review before turning over licensed radiological materials to unlicensed parties for disposal in unlicensed facilities is essential,” Brown wrote. “The NRC needs to give far more attention than is apparent in the proposed rule to the long-term effects of even relatively low levels of radiological contamination in unlicensed facilities.”

Brown cited the union’s representation of atomic workers who are trained to remove, handle and transport nuclear waste at all dosage levels, such as the union’s members at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.

“The minimal monetary costs this rule may reduce is not worth the costs to workers, our communities, and our environment,” Brown wrote. “We stand with those who oppose this rule, while continuing to support the ongoing mission of the cleanup of our nation’s Department of Energy nuclear sites.”

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