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)

How the NRC Works with Native American Tribal Governments

tribal outreach posterMy office, the Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, oversees NRC’s intergovernmental activities. When you hear the word, “intergovernmental,” you might think it refers to interactions with state or other federal agencies. We do that, but it’s only part of the story. We also have discussions and meetings with members of Native American tribal governments. We seek to inform Native American communities of the nature of NRC’s regulatory activities, and learn of tribal needs and concerns about our work.

The NRC routinely interacts with tribes on such issues as uranium milling and nuclear reactor licensing, nuclear waste storage and transportation of nuclear materials. The NRC is committed to its government-to-government relationships with tribes.

Over the past year, the NRC has developed a protocol to help the agency work with tribal governments, and to increase NRC’s awareness of tribal participation in the regulatory process. This has helped to educate NRC about Native American culture and historical relations between the federal government and the tribes. Our staff has enhanced its ability to work with tribal governments by taking courses in such areas as tribal consultation, environmental policy and historic preservation. We have also made efforts to increase general outreach to tribes and to respond to specific requests.

In addition, we maintain a working relationship with the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC. This group represents the needs and interests of all 565 federally recognized tribes.

Our staff is now working on regulations that would require Native American tribes to be notified of reactor fuel shipments that may be transported across tribal reservation lands. We’ve corresponded directly with all 565 tribes and asked for comments on the proposed regulation. Additional information about this rulemaking can be found at http://www.regulations.gov/by searching under Docket ID NRC-1999-0005.

NRC’s tribal outreach is part of a broader federal effort to communicate more closely with the tribes. In this way, we hope we are getting to know one another a bit better. If you’d like to know more about this activity, please contact Rich Turtil at Richard.Turtil@nrc.gov .

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

A Level of Confidence

The Commission’s recent update to the Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, published December 23 in the Federal Register, has been in the news lately. Many of the reports have misstated or misunderstood the meaning of the update and how it affects nuclear power plants. This post will provide a short history of Waste Confidence, a summary of the changes and a brief response to some of the most common misconceptions.

Waste Confidence generally refers to two documents: the Waste Confidence Decision and a corresponding Rule. The Decision provides the basis for the Rule and includes a number of generic safety and environmental findings. The Rule is a generic finding by the NRC that there will not be significant environmental impacts from storing spent fuel after a nuclear power plant’s operating license expires. (The term “generic” here means that it is not site specific.)

Waste Confidence stems from two federal court cases that set out the NRC’s obligations for safely storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The AEA requires the NRC to establish standards governing the civilian use of nuclear material and facilities; NEPA directs federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of major federal actions, such as licensing a nuclear power plant.

The 1984 Waste Confidence Decision included five findings that evaluated the technical feasibility of a repository and the long-term safety and feasibility of storing spent fuel. These findings satisfied the decisions in the cases mentioned above and formed the basis for the Waste Confidence Rule.

The Waste Confidence Decision and Rule have been amended twice since 1984. The most recent revision removed a date when a repository would be expected to be available for long-term disposal of spent fuel and evaluated the environmental effects of “at least 60 years” of spent fuel storage after the end of a reactor’s license.

A common misconception is that the update authorizes the continued licensing of nuclear power plants and the long-term storage of spent fuel. Rather, the update looks at only a small part of the NEPA analysis that needs to be completed before the Commission can decide on an application for a new nuclear power plant or spent fuel storage facility. Any licensing decision issued by the Commission must be based on a comprehensive NEPA analysis, and the update alone is not sufficient to meet this obligation.

Another common misconception is that the NRC has approved extended storage of spent fuel at reactor sites for the next 100 years or so. The update says the NRC has made a generic finding that the spent fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years, if necessary. This generic finding is needed to respond to the NRC’s legal obligations under the AEA and NEPA and does not make any site-specific findings or authorize storage at any specific location. Individual sites would still need to apply for approval to construct and operate storage facilities.

I hope that this helps provide some background on the Waste Confidence update and its history. I look forward to responding to your comments and questions on this complicated issue.

Tison Campbell
NRC Attorney