The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved licenses that will allow up to 1,000 tons of Germany’s low-level radioactive waste to be brought to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for incineration.
But some environmental groups say the plan for the radioactive waste is unhealthy, and may even crack the door further for highly radioactive wastes to be reprocessed or recycled in East Tennessee’s “Atomic City.”
“Tennessee is taking a lot more risks than most other areas in the world are willing to take,” said Don Safer, chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council. “The Germans are world leaders in incineration, but they decided this radioactive waste is something they will not burn.”
He noted the waste also was turned away by the Czech government, and the state of Utah did everything in its power to avoid receiving the ash left behind after incineration at Oak Ridge, forcing most of it to be shipped back to Germany.
EnergySolutions, a Utah-based multinational company that operates radioactive waste disposal facilities in Oak Ridge, said the process is safe when the proposal was introduced a few months ago. Company officials also said EnergySolutions has treated low-level radioactive waste — such as X-ray equipment, medical waste or contaminated clothing and mops from nuclear plants — for American businesses and the government at Oak Ridge since the facility opened more than 20 years ago.
“There’s more [radioactive] tritium in the atmosphere from cosmic rays from the sun than what we’d ever emit from there,” EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said last March.
On Wednesday, Walker said in an email that EnergySolutions appreciates “the rigorous and thorough analysis by the NRC. As always, we will comply with state and federal regulations.”
Because the licenses have been approved but not yet signed, the company has not confirmed import dates for the waste, he said.
Tennessee is the only state that allows commercial burning of radioactive waste, licensing six incinerators. The state already receives 75 percent of the nation’s low-level radioactive waste — about 41 million pounds per year, according to state records.
With German waste now permitted to enter the U.S. and come to Oak Ridge, Safer expects Tennessee to become “the destination for processing radioactive waste from all over the world.”
And with the acceptance of waste with low-level radiation, environmental groups fear highly radioactive waste is not off the table, either.
In separate recent tours of Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear power plants, both Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and TVA President and CEO Tom Kilgore told reporters they are expecting announcements of a TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory partnership to reprocess or recycle spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive.
Reprocessing nuclear fuel is controversial and done in other countries, but not in the U.S. because critics say it creates more pollution and is a terrorist and nuclear proliferation threat.
NRC spokesman David McIntyre said the two kinds of radioactive levels “are two different animals,” and only the low-level radioactive materials are in play in the recent approval.
Sara Barczak, director for high risk programs at CleanEnergy.org, an advocacy group for renewable energy sources, said Tennessee’s history with the World War II’s Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge — which helped develop the first atomic bomb — makes it hard for policymakers to change the state’s course.
“Tennessee already is a dumping ground, and Oak Ridge is a player ... and is open arms,” she said. “Those things are not good for Tennessee, and reprocessing is not good for nuclear proliferation goals.”
Safer also took state officials to task for not taking a stand against what he called “a crack” in the door.
“It really does open the door a little bit wider to the next nuclear proposal and, the fact is that the state [environmental regulators] and the governor presented no opposition,” he said.
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the decision to bring foreign waste to Tennessee was up to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not the state.
“From the state’s perspective, EnergySolutions is required to follow the requirements of its licenses, which are designed to be protective of human health and the environment, no matter where the waste originates,” she said.
Calabrese-Benton said EnergySolutions already is licensed by the state to handle low-level nuclear waste. The new licenses, which are specific to Oak Ridge, outline the type and quantity of radioactive material allowed onsite, as well as its handling requirements.
“In addition to facility-required monitoring, TDEC’s Division of Radiological Health performs independent monitoring, inspects the facilities and reviews facility monitoring results to ensure the license requirements are being met,” she said.
Safer said Tennessee’s rules are too lax, a product of nuclear energy being a big business in the state. After German waste comes here, “then who?” he asked.
“The Japanese? Is it possible that we will receive ‘low-level’ radioactive waste from the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster?”
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...