Safety and Sureties at Zion

North of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the largest demolition and clean-up projects in the history of nuclear power is underway. The Zion two-unit nuclear power plant, which was shut down 14 years ago, is being decommissioned, and people have questions.

How can the public be assured that the job is done right? What will happen to the land after the cleanup is finished? What is the NRC’s role in the project?

The NRC’s role is focused: our job is nuclear safety and security. NRC safety rules govern nearly every aspect of the project, from the demolition of piping, buildings, and equipment, to the packaging and shipment of rubble. ZionSolutions, the licensee responsible for the project, must follow strict safety procedures and provide robust site security. Every step of the way, NRC inspectors will be onsite to independently review the work done at Zion to make sure that the public, workers and the environment are protected.

Protecting people and the environment during the Zion project will cost money, of course. So, NRC rules require that enough money be set aside to do it safely. About $900 million has been set aside for that purpose.

Some have asked whether the NRC has any role in deciding how leftover money would be spent if the project is completed for less. While other authorities might have something to say about such a decision, the NRC would not, because Congress has not given the NRC that role. Rather, the NRC’s focus is strictly on making sure that enough funds are in place to complete the job safely.

Once the job is done, the site will be suitable for whatever use the property owner chooses to make of it. The NRC will still have a role to play, though, because the radioactive spent fuel that accumulated during the years Zion was up and running will continue to be safely stored on a small portion of the property until a permanent disposal facility is ready.

Some people may not realize that spent fuel has been safely stored at Zion for years in a large, protective pool. That fuel will eventually be moved into NRC-approved dry storage casks on the Zion site. NRC experts will perform inspections of the fuel movement to make sure that it’s done safely. After that, NRC will continue to periodically inspect the safety and security of the storage casks for as long as they remain on site.

From the beginning of the Zion decommissioning project to the end, the NRC will be there to protect people and the environment.

Jared K. Heck
Regional Counsel & Government Liaison Team Leader

Low-Level Radioactive Waste – A Definition Based on What It Is Not

One of my co-workers was asked the inevitable question of “What do you do?” at a recent party. Her response, “I regulate the disposal of low-level radioactive waste for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” raised some eyebrows. The reaction was not because anyone found her line of work questionable. Instead, it was a result of not knowing what low-level waste is, or how it is generated.

My co-worker quickly jumped in to explain that while the term low-level waste may sound self-explanatory, it is not that clear, technically-speaking.

Low-level waste is a somewhat generic term that captures everything that does not fit into other waste type definitions. So, to understand what low-level waste is, you first have to understand what it is not. It is not mill tailings, which are a byproduct of uranium milling and contain several naturally-occurring radioactive elements as well as heavy metals. It is not transuranic waste, which has its own definition based on chemistry. Finally, it is not high-level waste, which is a result of the reactions in a nuclear reactor or reprocessing fuel that has been in a reactor.

Basically, low-level waste is everything else. It is created through the operation of nuclear plants, the conversion, enrichment and manufacturing of fuel, the use of radioactive isotopes in hospitals or industry, and the decommissioning of shut-down plants. It can consist of clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues.

What may surprise people is that the radioactivity of low-level waste can span a wide range depending upon the types of waste involved. In other words, while most low-level waste is lower in radioactivity than high-level waste, this is not always true. You need to keep in mind that there are many different types of material with a large range of radioactivity that could be called low-level waste.

George Deegan
Senior Program Analyst (Nuclear Materials/Waste Management)
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