Nuclear Regulatory Commission Ignores Depleted Uranium Risks

For Immediate Release

Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
Contact: 

Arjun Makhijani, IEER, 301-270-5500

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Ignores Depleted Uranium Risks

Votes to Ignore Sound Science, Its Own Prior Analysis, and Radiological Safety

TAKOMA PARK, Md. - The
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted today
to declare that
depleted uranium (DU) from enrichment plants is a Class A low-level
radioactive waste -- the least dangerous kind that supposedly consists
mainly of short-lived radionuclides.

In 2005, the NRC had concluded
that large amounts of DU were not
covered by its existing low-level waste rule and directed its staff to
develop recommendations regarding DU classification. The Commission's
action also opens the door to classification of other dangerous
radioactive wastes in the least hazardous category -- Class A. 

Commissioner Jaczko dissented
and voted in favor of a rulemaking
process to determine the classification of DU within the existing
low-level waste framework.

"With the exception of Commissioner Jaczko's vote, the NRC today bypassed
scientific integrity, its own prior analysis in a draft low-level waste
environmental impact statement, and the simple facts about the
characteristics of depleted uranium," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president
of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), who has
studied the issue of depleted uranium disposal and testified in NRC
enrichment plant licensing proceedings. "This will make DU disposal cheap
for the enrichment companies. The NRC seems eager to please the
burgeoning uranium enrichment industry, but it has compromised sound
science and public health protection of future generations."

"The Commission has done a real disservice to the public with this
decision," said Dr. Makhijani. "President Obama has said his
administration would respect good science. With the exception of the
courageous vote of Commissioner Jaczko, who voted for a process that
would respect the scientific and regulatory processes, the NRC majority
flouted that commitment."

Extensive analyses done by IEER have shown that DU disposal in large
amounts in shallow facilities would greatly exceed the dose limits of
current NRC low-level waste regulations (see, for instance,
http://www.ieer.org/reports/du/lesrpt.pdf). The 1981 analysis done by the
NRC itself in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the low-level
waste regulation concluded that DU in Class A waste should not exceed
0.05 microcuries per cubic centimeter. DU from enrichment plants has a
concentration that is over ten times greater than that. The final rule
dropped DU in large amounts from consideration because it was not
considered a waste at that time.

Dr. Makhijani said that the

NRC staff's October 2008 finding
that doses from DU disposal could
result in low doses in arid climates is based on unsupportable
assumptions. For instance, the analysis assumes that will be no erosion
from wind, rain, flowing water, or snow for one million years at the
disposal site. Another implicit assumption was that affected people would
remember where the disposal took place and know not to go onto the site
for a million years because the dose is calculated only for people
outside the disposal area.

Currently some 740,000 tons of depleted uranium in unstable hexafluoride
form are stockpiled at Department of Energy sites at Paducah, Kentucky,
Portsmouth, Ohio, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. One company, LES, is
currently building an enrichment plant in New Mexico, which will generate
well over 100,000 metric tons of DU. The NRC granted a license to that
company for the enrichment plant in 2006. Three other companies are
seeking licenses to build enrichment plants in Idaho, Ohio, and North
Carolina. The NRC staff assumes that between existing stocks and DU from
new plants, 1.4 million tons in all, will have to be disposed of as a
radioactive waste. The radioactivity of DU grows with time because of the
in-growth of the decay products of uranium-238, like thorium-230 and
radium-226.

Dr. Makhijani added that the NRC staff did not do its homework regarding
DU disposal impacts prior to granting a license to LES in 2006. Its
counsel stated that it relied on a 1990 technical analysis done for the
EnergySolutions low-level waste disposal site in Utah as being sound.
Among other things, that analysis included a conclusion that an amount of
uranium-238 greater that the weight of the Earth could be disposed of in
fraction of an ounce of Utah soil. The staff did not back away from its
reliance on the report even when the physical impossibility of the
conclusion was pointed out in expert testimony by Dr. Makhijani
(transcript available).

"It is a sad day because science and public health have succumbed to
expediency and profit," concluded Dr. Makhijani. "Commissioner Jaczko's
vote for a regulatory process to determine the classification of DU and
update the low-level waste rule, using the proper legal, technical and
public processes, is the only bright spot. We applaud him. We call on
President Obama to support Commissioner Jaczko's vote and call a halt to
the process that has classified a dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste
in the least dangerous Class A category. He should ask the NRC to set in
motion process that will respect science and protect public health."

EnergySolutions, which has a low-level waste disposal site in Utah, is
most likely to gain an advantage from today's NRC ruling, since it is
licensed to dispose of Class A low-level waste only. A newly licensed
low-level waste disposal site in West Texas may also benefit.

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IEER is dedicated to increasing public involvement in and control over environmental problems through the democratization of science.

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