A radioactive black eye

A radioactive black eye

June 30th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the import licenses, it's not clear when the 1,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Germany will begin rolling into Tennessee for incineration by Energy Solutions, a private, multinational firm, in Oak Ridge. But given the skeptical national and international coverage of the commercial incineration plan, it is clear that Tennessee is now internationally recognized for doing something that no other state in America, and few advanced nations, will do: Accept the importation of radioactive waste for commercial incineration within our own borders.

This is not the sort of name and reputation that thinking Tennesseans would want for our state. It makes us look backward and environmentally negligent. It also confirms the cozy, industry-friendly relationships that Energy Solutions' lobbyists have with our state lawmakers.

But that's just one half of a lamentable twofer: The other is the possibility that Tennessee also will soon become known as a center for reprocessing or recycling spent nuclear fuel, which is highly radioactive. Planning for such a process, currently being performed by several countries with nuclear energy plants, is presently under discussion by TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory and could soon become a reality.

In some ways, the latter is probably more preferable than the commercial processing of low-level radioactive waste. Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, to be sure, would involve the hazardous transportation on public highways and rail systems of highly radioactive material to and from Oak Ridge. It also would potentially make the national laboratory there a more focused target for terrorism. Still, its highly technical and hazardous character would require far stricter safety standards and NRC oversight, and presumably much more careful handling.

The commercial business of recycling low-level nuclear waste, on the other hand, will likely not receive the same standard of rigid attention and scrutiny. Though it's chiefly a private business that no other state in the country wants or allows, its "low-level" designation may spur regulatory complacency and more lax workplace routines. Indeed, the plant is more likely to be seen as the sort of trash-receiving-and-handling businesses that typically only needy, underdeveloped countries allow, and then only because they can't move up quickly to cleaner, higher-tech industries.

It's no coincidence, however, that other states shun the incineration of low-level nuclear waste, and won't accept the ashes for their landfills. Regardless of the approval given Energy Solutions by its regulators - the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Tennessee's environmental monitors - most states and their citizens worry about the environmental consequences.

Citizens' and environmental groups reasonably fear that business lapses or equipment failures in the incineration process could produce hazardous emissions to the air. Where ashes are buried, they also fear hazardous leaks and contamination to water tables, aquifers, streams and rivers. Regardless, opponents of the Energy Solutions' contract with Germany were wrongly denied a public hearing on their concerns by the NRC before it issued the import licenses.

Given that arrogant denial, the idea that state government would allow Energy Solutions' importation of nuclear-plant waste, and that the NRC would reliably monitor them to prevent the inject of hazardous materials into public spaces and resources, doesn't bolster public confidence. Past environmental disasters, such as the massive release of toxin-laden coal ash from TVA's ruptured ash ponds at Kingston power plant, give citizens good reason for concern.

There surely is a good reason why Germany, a world-leading export and industrial power, does not want to incinerate its own radioactive waste. Tennessee should respect that reason and deny future imports of radioactive waste. Of course, our lawmakers would have to quit holding hands with business lobbyists to stand up against them.