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."
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."
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."
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."
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.