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DOE radwaste to Tennessee landfills – next chapter

It turns out that DOE’s conference call (see previous post) was not really an “initial public outreach activity” (other than the fact that it was their first public outreach on this topic), but rather was a belated damage-control job: the Department wanted to see whether it would be a bad idea to follow through with a contract they had already signed.

According to an article in Weapons Complex Monitor, the day after the conference call, DOE canceled a contract with Toxco Inc. Toxco has filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement of this contract, which DOE entered into earlier this year, under which Toxco’s Oak Ridge unit was going to do clean-up work at a DOE site in upstate New York, including disposing of some contaminated soil in a Tennessee municipal landfill. Use of a Tennessee municipal landfill instead of a licensed low-level radioactive waste facility was going to save DOE $750 thousand. The reported value of the contract with Toxco was more than $1.1 million, so I’m guessing that the total cost of the project with another company that would send all of the waste to a radwaste site is almost $1.9 million. This represented huge savings for DOE, and Weapons Complex Monitor says that in July DOE officials had signed off on the plan to put the waste in a Tennessee landfill.

With this background, I still congratulate DOE for having the good sense to drop the idea, but hearing the rest of the story gives me a lot of concern. The Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC) policy that allows low concentrations of radioactive contamination in some state municipal landfills is well-intentioned but ill-advised. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea technically — radioactivity is naturally present in the environment, and this is material (“contaminated” because radioactivity has been added to it) that may be no more radioactive (or even less radioactive) than some natural soil. Also, TDEC requires a risk assessment of each waste stream that is allowed to go to a landfill under its “bulk survey for release” rules.

The problem is that federal law does not allow for “de minimis” radioactive waste to be managed except in rad-licensed facilities (the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tried to change it more than 2 decades ago, but dropped the idea after they ran into severe political opposition), and no other state permits this (as far as I know). As a result, it appears that Tennessee is the destination of choice for some rad waste — this is cheap and easy place to dispose of lightly contaminated material. Some local businesses are profiting because they serve as middlemen in the transactions between waste generators and Tennessee landfills, but I don’t think that’s the kind of business model that this community wants to promote. Although it looks like Toxco’s contract included some other technical work on the site cleanup (and I’m sorry that they lost that work), in general I believe that the only economic benefit to Oak Ridge from these waste-to-landfill transactions is that they help a company’s balance sheet — there’s no local tax revenue, and this business probably damages the city’s reputation. Furthermore, I assume that Tennessee citizens who have tolerated landfills in their “backyards” do so because area citizens and businesses need to get rid of their garbage, not so that Tennessee can take waste from the rest of the country (and possibly the world).

If there is technical merit in allowing lightly contaminated radwaste into landfills, let’s change the disposal policy at the national level. One state should not be doing this unilaterally. There certainly would be economic benefits to changing that policy, but if DOE and industry can quietly send their waste to Tennessee, where’s their incentive to lobby for change at the national level?