09 November 2007

NRC plans to update long-term storage guidelines

Agency to update low-level nuke storage guidelines by spring 2008

Associated Press Writer

The federal agency that oversees low-level radioactive waste said in a report that it will update its long-term storage guidelines and require tighter security because more power plants, hospitals and universities will store the hazardous material on their own property beginning next year.

"The agency's existing guidance on LLW (low-level waste) storage is in some cases obsolete and may also have gaps in areas related to security," according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission report released Friday.

The update is needed because a South Carolina nuclear waste landfill plans to close its doors to most of the country July 1.

The commission said it will also issue guidelines for monitoring stored waste, preparing it for eventual disposal, whenever that may be, and sealing it from extreme temperatures, rain and humidity. The guidelines were last issued in 1990.

Some officials fear storing the waste in potentially hundreds of locations across the country could allow radiation to escape, or that small, highly concentrated sealed sources, such as gauges, could be stolen to make "dirty bombs" that scatter radioactive debris.

The update will include security requirements to guard against terrorism, said Jim Kennedy, senior project manager of the commission's low-level waste branch.

The report comes less than a year before a landfill in Barnwell County closes to all but three states, meaning many power plants, hospitals and other companies will be forced to store the more radioactive low-level waste onsite.

As of July 1, nuclear waste generators in 36 states will have nowhere to dispose of that waste - roughly an average of 20,000 cubic feet yearly, or enough to fill six tractor-trailers.

Only two other landfills now exist nationwide for low-level nuclear waste.

One, in Utah, takes only the least hazardous trash, such as slightly contaminated clothing that decays to non-hazardous levels within 100 years. It accepts waste from all states. The other landfill, in Washington, receives such material along with hotter waste that decays to non-hazardous levels within 500 years. But it accepts shipments from only 11 states, including Utah and Nevada.

A private company hopes to open a landfill in Texas within a few years for all classes of low-level waste, but it would accept waste only from Texas and Vermont.

Though nuclear power plants account for less than 5 percent of the 22,000 hospitals and other companies licensed to handle radioactive materials, they generate most of the hotter low-level waste. That includes contaminated tools and water purifying filters.

The commission expects to review and sign off on that industry's storage plans by next fall.

Also by the end of 2008, the agency expects to clarify when it will allow very-low-level nuclear waste to be taken to federal or municipal landfills where other hazardous waste, such as mercury, is dumped. The agency allows that only a handful of times yearly on a case-by-case basis, Kennedy said.

The report discusses some of the industry's suggestions for low-level waste disposal, including opening Energy Department dump sites for commercial disposal. But such decisions are beyond the commission's responsibilities, the report said.

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