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The Business of Profitably Disposing of Nuclear Waste

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign is pictured at the headquarters building in RockvilleThe US House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment on 3 November 2009 unanimously approved a legislation to ban the importation of foreign radioactive waste for disposal in the US.

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced H.R. 515: Radioactive Import Deterrence Act in January of 2009 and the bill could soon be up for a vote in the House of Representatives. The full committee will vote on the bill shortly with a full House at some future point after that. When the subcommittee approved the legislation Barton said, “We’re the only nation in the world that buries the nuclear waste of other countries in our soil. We already have limited space in our country for the radioactive waste generated by American entities and it should be preserved for them – the medical facilities, university research labs and utility companies.”

While there are some legitimate concerns with low-level waste importation, there is also tremendous opportunity. Before weighing the pros and cons, it’s relevant to know what low-level nuclear waste is. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines low-level radioactive waste as items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. There are three classes of low-level waste: A, B and C, and, “class A low-level radioactive waste contains the lowest concentration of radioactive materials, and most of those materials have half-lives of less than five years.”

One concern, as emphasized by Congressman Barton is space. Salt Lake City-based Energy Solutions wants to import 20,000 tonnes of low-level waste from Italy, which after processing in Tennessee would be trimmed down to 1,600 tonnes to be stored in Utah’s desert. Testimony from Margaret M. Doane of the NRC would suggest otherwise. In her written testimony on 16 October 2009, she said, “There do not appear to be any such concerns about capacity for disposal of Class A material, which has been the classification for all waste import cases today.”

Another concern, as with all things nuclear, is safety – also known as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) problem. But the truth is nuclear waste is routinely transported all over the country daily everyday. Since 1971, more than 20,000 shipments of spent fuel and high-level waste have been transported more than 18 million miles worldwide without incident. And that’s high-level waste. There’s much more when it comes to low level waste (both domestically and internationally) and the NRC has strict guidelines for regulatory requirements, licensing, and safety oversight.

That being said, there are also concerns as to what the bill would do from a competitiveness perspective. This is becoming increasingly important as U.S. nuclear companies begin to position themselves to participate in the global nuclear renaissance that is unfolding.

  • This is a lost business opportunity for America’s commercial nuclear industry. If companies can find safe and profitable disposition methods, those companies should be allowed to pursue those opportunities. It is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s job to ensure that those activities are done safely. Using ones resources to provide cost effective services is how competitive companies succeed. Forcing companies to use more expensive means essentially undermines their competitiveness and will result in lost opportunities. Furthermore, if space is a concern, that’s something for the importing company to address, not the government. Specific companies should have the freedom to use their resources, such as space availability, as they deem appropriate. Interestingly, the bill does not prevent the government from importing low-level waste, only the private sector.
  • It could add a potential barrier to an emerging industry. Congressman Fred Upton (D-MI) remarked, “The U.S. is on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance … we risk never realizing our full potential on nuclear power.” The Congressman is right to be concerned. The legislation essentially precludes American companies from fully participating in a critical sector of the global nuclear industry. Denying a U.S. company from efficiently using its assets—in this case, a waste disposal facility—disadvantages U.S. companies that are competing with international firms.
  • It could hamper the global nuclear energy market. At the end of September 2009, the Department of Energy announced, “U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Italian Minister for Economic Development Claudio Scajola today signed two important nuclear energy agreements that may lead to construction of new nuclear power plants and improved cooperation on advanced nuclear energy systems and fuel cycle technologies in both countries.” Banning imports of low-level waste would be a step backward after such an important step forward to building an international market for nuclear technologies.

Congress should seek real solutions towards nuclear waste management reform and implement polices that keep U.S. markets open and encourage lower trade barriers around the world. While concerns over safety and space may be legitimate, this policy could have significant long-term implications for the future of nuclear power in America.