Nuclear Regulatory Commission Proposes to Allow Some Nuclear Waste Disposal in Landfills

St. Louis area landfill containing nuclear waste that migrated.      Photo: Laurie Skrivan, AP via WSJ

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is proposing to loosen restrictions on the disposal of the waste from nuclear power plants to allow municipal landfills to take it, thus lowering costs for the aging nuclear plants.  The Hill reported that scientists and environmental advocates oppose the proposal — particularly coming now during the coronavirus pandemic — because it would put public health at risk, particularly given the rollbacks in regulations on emissions from landfills and the current lack of any enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency of all regulations.

Why This Matters:  Who wants nuclear waste in their municipal landfill?  Especially when we know those were not designed to accept this kind of toxic waste that could have devastating health impacts in neighboring communities.  This seems like a really bad idea – with no safeguards to ensure that surrounding groundwater, land and neighborhoods remain safe.  The pandemic may be a big challenge for the Trump administration but they are not taking their eye off the ball as far as deregulation of environmental, health and safety rules.

The NRC Says Its NBD

There is a limit to what even the NRC would accept.  The proposed rollback would not permit waste with a large level of radiation to be put in a landfill — waste with a cumulative radiation dose level of up to 25 millirem would not be permitted, which is low.  But there is no cumulative amount allowed in any landfill and a rule like this one is easy to get around by making each load fall under the limit.  They claim that this just allows states to permit the landfills to take nuclear waste without the state having to approve each disposal.

What the NGOs and Scientists Say

Dan Hirsch, the former director of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy, argues this is a terrible proposal — “[w]hat they’re trying to do is prop up a failing industry so that the cost of decommissioning these [nuclear] reactors is reduced so you don’t have to send it to a place that is expensive because it’s designed to safely handle it.”   And Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Pacific Director Jeff Ruch said: “NRC’s action could transform most municipal dumps into radioactive repositories, with essentially no safeguards for workers, nearby residents, or adjoining water tables.”   In the past, nuclear waste dumped in landfills has been found to migrate off the site — like happened at a landfill in St. Louis where it was later found in a nearby creek, in the yards of private homes and under ballfields.

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