published Friday, March 18th, 2011

Radioactive waste may be bound for state

This EnergySolutions plant is located on West Bear Creek Road in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Photo by Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel
This EnergySolutions plant is located on West Bear Creek Road in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Photo by Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel

An East Tennessee plant recently applied to import and treat 1,000 tons of German radioactive waste, a move some say makes good business sense but has environmental activists concerned for the state’s health.

EnergySolutions, a Utah-based multinational company, operates radioactive waste disposal facilities in Oak Ridge, Tenn., including an incineration facility at Bear Creek. The commercial plant has treated low-level radioactive waste — such as x-ray equipment and medical waste — for American businesses and the government since it opened more than 20 years ago.

A German company has proposed sending radioactive medical and industrial waste to Oak Ridge for incineration so it can be shipped back to Germany and stored as ash.

EnergySolutions officials said their company is one of just a few that can treat waste in that way.

But some environmental activists call importing radioactive waste “a dangerous mistake.”

“I don’t understand why any state, no matter how desperate they are for jobs, would bring this known toxic, hazardous material,” said Diane D’Arrigo, radioactive waste project director at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a North Carolina group.

D’Arrigo said radioactive waste transport and burning runs a high risk of locally releasing low levels of radiation that are known to contribute to diseases such as lung cancer and leukemia, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“There’s no safe level. There’s no threshold dose for most of these health effects,” she said. “Even a little bit increases a person’s risk.”

EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said the facilities are as safe as they can be and any radiation released is lower than natural background levels.

The company has a state license to treat waste regardless of its country of origin and applied in November for U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission permission to import, treat and export international waste.

NRC spokesman David McIntyre said approval can take several months. Company officials have said if the NRC approves, EnergySolutions could begin shipping waste as early as April or as late as the end of the year.

HEALTH & SAFETY

Since EnergySolutions came to Tennessee more than 20 years ago, there has never been a death or injury from exposure to materials, according to Walker.

The company meets Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation licensing regulations on safety concerns such as radiation shielding and maintaining proper ventilation systems. EnergySolutions is required by TDEC to monitor radiation levels on site and in the area, and state regulators test the area once a year — twice as often as the federal government recommends.

TDEC official also take monthly water samples and quarterly sediment samples from nearby Grassy Creek, and both TDEC and EnergySolutions maintain separate ambient radiation monitors around the facility’s perimeter fence.

But D’Arrigo said more outside testing is needed.

“Once a year is definitely not enough,” she said. “When the thing is burning every day of the year, it is not going to necessarily be representative of the whole story.”

CAPACITY

The Oak Ridge plant incinerates 15,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste every year, most of which comes from the United States. Though the incineration process does not reduce radioactivity, volume reduction helps keep radioactive waste storage facilities from filling, Walker said.

The company acknowledges that, on rare occasions, radioactive materials such as tritium are released during treatment. The company said releases are at rates 96 percent below the limit set by Tennessee, and TDOT officials confirmed all the materials released by EnergySolutions are within state regulations.

“There’s more tritium in the atmosphere from cosmic rays from the sun than what we’d ever emit from there,” Walker said.

Still, environmental activists worry about the potential health effects of radioactive ash escaping smokestacks.

“I believe them when they say it [filtration] captures whatever 90 percent they say it captures, but even if it does capture 99.9 percent, there is a .01 percent that’s getting out,” said Don Safer, chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council.

“All it takes is one particle that is that fine to get into your lungs and you’ve got a high probability of getting lung cancer.”

According to the NRC regulatory guide, breathing is the most common way radioactive material is ingested. When radioactive materials do get ingested, they most often pass through several organs and are excreted within a few days.

Irradiated material passing through a person’s body can permanently change cells, sometimes causing cancer in the host or genetic birth defects in an exposed person’s child.

Safer said that’s why incineration isn’t a healthy way to dispose of any waste.

“It’s absolutely essential that the filters work 100 percent, 100 percent of the time,” he said.

“It’s rare anymore to burn radioactive waste materials. How rare is indicated by the Germans wanting to ship the stuff over here to burn it,” he said. “It’s pretty telling that .... it even makes economic sense to do it.”

TRANSPORT

The plan is still in the early stages, so EnergySolutions is unsure how much the contract would be worth.

German isotope production company Eckert & Ziegler, which supplies radioactive medical and industrial supplies such as X-ray equipment, proposes to send leftover radioactive waste to a yet-to-be determined East Coast port by boat. The waste would be trucked via interstate highways and Tennessee Route 95 or Route 58 to Oak Ridge incinerators, according to EnergySolutions’ import license application.

“The biggest danger is the transportation in and out,” said state Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who is against the deal. “The potential implications are monstrous. I certainly hope that things go right, but when you’re talking about some of the most dangerous material on our planet, we want to use every possible safeguard.”

There are no plans for the German waste to be stored in Tennessee. Last year EnergySolutions drew fire when it proposed importing radioactive Italian waste for treatment in Tennessee and storage in Utah, but Walker said EnergySolutions is now committed to not storing foreign waste in the U.S.

Still, Berke worries about waste and ash transport.

In 2008, a dam at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured, releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry just miles away from Oak Ridge. The ash was nonradioactive but contained such toxic chemicals as arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium.

Berke wants to ensure the area doesn’t see another ash spill — particularly not a radioactive one — which could affect important natural resources such as the Tennessee River.

“Any kind of environmental issues don’t just concern the local area, they concern the river and the entire environment,” he said. “We’re 20 miles or so away from a coal ash spill that should remind us of the dangers of playing with this type of waste.”

POLITICS

Laurence Miller, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, takes his radioactive waste management class on a tour of EnergySolutions every year. He said the facility is entirely safe and called the idea that the German waste would raise additional health concerns “total nonsense.”

“From the standpoint of a health issue, it’s no different from what they’ve been doing,” he said. “If you are worried now, then why were you not worried for the last 10 years?”

If people want to take issue with importing German waste, they should focus on politics, not health, Miller said.

“The issue should be: We don’t want to process anybody’s foreign stuff,” he said. “From the standpoint of politics, if you don’t want to burn someone else’s trash, then that’s a totally different issue.”

That issue isn’t lost on Berke, who worries that accepting the waste would open the doors for Tennessee to become other countries’ “nuclear trash can.”

Safer said he’s also unhappy with the future political implications of the deal.

“The reality is that once this stuff starts coming in regularly from foreign countries, it will come in from all over the world,” he said. “Once this is established as a business model for EnergySolutions, I don’t think it’s going to be very long before they’re looking to bring other materials in.”

But EnergySolutions officials said they already are treating foreign waste from countries such as Mexico, Canada, the U.K. and Japan, making Germany’s materials a logical expansion of what’s already being done.

“It’s just not in any shape, form or fashion a precedent-setting event,” said Thomas Magette, senior vice president of nuclear regulatory strategy at EnergySolutions. “The idea of opening the door is just misplaced because it’s been going on for decades.”

For Safer, the bottom line is that foreign countries should deal with their own waste.

“We’re doing things that in other parts of the world are very controversial,” he said.

“Tennessee is just volunteering to be the world’ s radioactive waste processor and doing things that most of the rest of the world will not think about doing to radioactive waste.”

ENERGYSOLUTIONS

Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, EnergySolutions recycles, processes and disposes of nuclear material across the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. The Oak Ridge facility is the only one of its type operated by the company, which generates about $1.5 billion in revenue annually. The company has been active in Tennessee for more than 20 years.

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bpqd said...

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service is based from Maryland; the North Carolina office is a branch of their international franchise. They are obviously an anti-nuclear political activist group; their symbol is a hand choking a nuclear reactor's cooling tower.

There are some outright factually incorrect statements in the article above.

Natural ingestion, by eating food, is the most common way radiation enters the human body. Potassium and iodine are both essential for life; and, they often carry common isotopes in nature. Hundreds of other common compounds and elements can have naturally occurring isotope variations.

In fact, without some ingestion of radioactive materials at very low levels, human life would not be possible. All foods which provide potassium and iodine also provide small quantities of isotopes at the same time. Isotopes occur in nature. They are common in food.

Eating a banana, for example, is a common way of ingesting isotopes.

Also, one of the reasons why the United States is a leader in nuclear matters has been because of our high engineering standards. The West typically has chosen safer and more reliable processes when it comes to nuclear science. That includes disposal.

For transportation; in the US, even nuclear warheads must be prepared for transport so that there is less than a one in a million chance of any type of accidental release from a container holding certain grades of nuclear materials. The destructive tests of the containers include striking sample containers broadside with trains. Promoting fear, solely on the idea that the material will be transported, overlooks the engineering efforts which support the interest of public safety.

Radioactive waste is by far not --not-- the most dangerous material on the planet. The most dangerous substances to human life include: carbon dioxide(vapor), urine (liquid), and feces (solid): raw sewage. Sewage is so hazardous that the body must be rid of it in order to sustain life. Raw sewage is a poison; and, it can kill a healthy adult swiftly if the environmental exposure conditions are adverse. Ingesting, injecting or inhaling raw sewage can and will kill a human being faster than trace environmental radiation exposure.

Finally, not all radioactive material is fissile. Not everything radioactive can reasonably cause or contribute to a thermonuclear explosion. Most radioactive materials occur naturally in small and disparate quantities.

It is simply not good leadership to encourage fear in response to the idea of nuclear science. That's what NIRS does, and that's why they are not a good source of information for an informative news story.

March 18, 2011 at 12:52 a.m.
dude_abides said...

God, you people are really organized! It's like you have meetings to decide who will charge out with the talking points to beat down any potentially negative news. No matter what type of story, you guys are ready with the counter argument. That's scary.

March 18, 2011 at 7:15 a.m.
twharr said...

Talk about a staged response.

March 18, 2011 at 1:31 p.m.
SavartiTN said...

This state has a bad habit of accepting radioactive waste without local officials or citizens input. I lived in Murfreesboro in 2007 when it was discovered that the state had been allowing low level radioactive waste to be dumped in the local landfill for 22 years...right on the Stones River. No one...not even the city officials...knew that this was happening. The scary part was that the drinking water intake for the entire county was a couple of miles downstream from this landfill. The state of Tennessee and BFI made a fortune from accepting this waste.

I am a nuclear advocate but I don't think that we should be accepting everyone else's radioactive waste. South Carolina did and they now have a major problem on their hands.

March 18, 2011 at 1:34 p.m.
BOOBOO99 said...

Bring radioactive waste from Germany is stupid and puts the american people in danger..The company might be careful but what if there is an accident in transporting this waste to Oak ridge...Its a money thing for this company and they dont care about the risk it puts to the people...All they see is MONEY!!!!

March 18, 2011 at 1:44 p.m.
rockman12 said...

If it produces jobs, bring it on.

March 18, 2011 at 5:40 p.m.
dude_abides said...

It produces jobs for oncologists and florists.

March 18, 2011 at 11:07 p.m.
myisland said...

Nuclear industry shill bpqd actually used the fallacious banana equivalency argument! A banana equivalent dose is a whimsical unit of radiation exposure, informally defined as the additional dose a person will absorb from eating one banana. Another of his arguments is that radiation is safer than eating raw sewage. Homer Simpson lives.

March 18, 2012 at 11:32 p.m.
SarahCarmichael said...

I think the concerns regarding the environment are valid, but that just means that regulations have to be put in place to ensure that the company does a safe job of transporting and treating the waste, since this is not your everyday skin bins waste.

April 10, 2012 at 9:55 p.m.
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