Report Calls For Basing Regulation Of 'Low-Activity' Radioactive Wastes On Risk

Wastes containing small concentrations of radioactive material should be regulated based on the risk they pose to human health rather than the type of industry that produced them, as is currently the case, according to a report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

"Low-activity" wastes are by far the largest volume of radioactive wastes generated each year in the United States. Some of these wastes come from hospitals, utilities, research institutions and defense installations where nuclear material is used. Millions of cubic feet of low-activity wastes also arise incidentally every year from non-nuclear enterprises such as mining and water treatment. Low-activity wastes can cause health risks if controlled improperly.

The complicated patchwork of regulations currently governing the management and disposal of low-activity wastes gives federal and state agencies adequate authority to protect the public, but the rules are inconsistent, according to the committee that wrote the report. Regulations for some low-activity wastes are overly restrictive, which limits disposal options, while other wastes of equal or greater risk are less strictly regulated. For example, wastes containing uranium or thorium are regulated differently based on whether they arose from ore processing to recover these elements for nuclear applications or from the recovery of other mineral resources.

Low-activity wastes from nuclear utilities and other operations licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must be sent along often-lengthy shipping routes to one of only three licensed disposal sites. This is despite the fact that these wastes may be less radioactive than low-activity wastes from other industries that are allowed to use local landfills for waste disposal.

The report states that conducting science-based risk assessments with the public's participation would be the best way to implement what it called a "risk-informed" approach to regulation. Recognizing that it would be difficult to rapidly change a regulatory system that has evolved over 60 years, the committee suggested that agencies adopt the approach in incremental steps. To start with, agencies should work together under their existing authorities to change licenses and permits for specific waste generators or disposal sites. In certain cases, implementing a risk-informed approach may require agencies to rewrite official guidance documents or regulations, or to seek legislative changes.

Agencies should continue to improve efforts to involve citizens in waste-disposal decisions, which can bolster public acceptance of the choices made, the committee added.

Citing significant progress by the European Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency in developing risk-based standards for low-activity wastes, the report encourages U.S. agencies to collaborate with their counterparts overseas. Using international consensus standards as a basis for U.S. regulations could also help garner public support, the committee noted.

Additional information on the report, Improving the Regulation and Management of Low-Activity Radioactive Wastes (announced on March 9), can be found at http://fermat.nap.edu/catalog/11595.html.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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