In March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed some changes regarding the disposal of radioactive waste in the US. Two months later, an article from The Guardian asserted these proposed changes could “allow dangerous amounts of radioactive material to be disposed of in places like municipal landfills, with potentially serious consequences to human health and the environment.” This sentiment, though factually inaccurate, is not uncommon among Americans. In fact, there is a widely held narrative in the US that nuclear waste can never be anything less than life-threatening.
This portrayal is rooted in the misconception that all radioactive waste is created equal when in actuality the negative aspects of radiation are entirely exposure-dependent. Bananas, for example, are slightly radioactive because they contain the potassium-40 isotope. Yet one would have to eat around ten million bananas before they would start to experience the effects of radiation poisoning. Even though death by banana radiation is possible (if only theoretical), it would be ridiculous to eliminate bananas from one’s diet for this reason. That anything will be toxic if administered at too high of a dose is a core principle of toxicology. As the physician Paracelsus — sometimes credited as the father of toxicology — stated,
“All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.”
Similarly, if exposure to radiation is kept low, then so are the risks. This principle has important implications for the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste in the US.
Complicated particles: The diversity of radioactive waste
The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) divides radioactive waste into two broad categories: high-level and low-level waste. An examination of these categories reveals the genuine diversity of nuclear waste materials. The first, composed of spent fuel rods removed from the core of a nuclear reactor, is the truly dangerous stuff. High-level waste makes up only 3 percent of all radioactive waste by volume but contributes to 95 percent of all radioactivity from produced waste worldwide.
Low-level waste (LLW) is further divided into class A, class B, and class C waste. The amount of radiation released by the lowest tier of class A waste, referred to as Very Low-Level Waste (VLLW), is recognized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as waste which releases an amount of radiation low enough for it to be disposed of safely in commercial landfills. Over the last 20 years in the United States, Class A waste has made up over 99 percent of all LLW by volume, but only 3 percent of radioactivity. VLLW can consist of soil and rubble from decommissioned nuclear sites, naturally occurring radionuclides from food processing plants, and even slightly contaminated medical equipment.
Most of the radiation humans are exposed to does not come from nuclear energy, but from naturally occurring background radiation. Of the approximately 350 millirems of radiation the average person is exposed to in any given year, only 0.2% actually comes from radiation-related to nuclear activities. Lifestyle choices, such as living at higher altitudes, above-average exposure to radiological medical procedures or machines, or spending a considerable amount of time flying (an individual on a flight from Paris to New York will be exposed to more radiation than someone who has lived by a nuclear power plant for a year) will generally affect an individual’s average radiation exposure more than living near a radioactive waste site.
All this waste with nowhere to go
In spite of these facts, plans for the licensing of new waste facilities in the US are usually met with intense public backlash. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, which was meant to turn the responsibility of LLW disposal over to the states. This allowed states to form multi-state compacts within which they could create a disposal site for use by all states within the compact. The act has had little success though, because the term “LLW” is far too broad, and different levels of radioactivity under the LLW umbrella require different levels of regulation. Additionally, most compacts found it hard to come to a decision on which state would host the facility, and only one new facility has been built since. At the moment, there are only 4 licensed facilities in the US responsible for managing upwards of 4.25 million cubic feet of LLW annually — enough waste to fill almost 50 Olympic swimming pools.
The NRC’s proposed rule, which would allow the lowest level of class A waste to be disposed of in unlicensed facilities, is a smart step towards a system that regulates waste based on risk level. Currently, VLLW makes up over 99.7 percent of all LLW. Less stringent regulation for the lowest-risk category of waste would lead to a wider variety of disposal options, reduce transportation distances, and save space in the more highly regulated facilities for more dangerous waste products like class B and class C waste.
Case in point: Britain’s success
When it comes to waste management policy, the UK provides a good example of the necessary balance between rationality and safety. The UK has issued a policy that allows for VLLW disposal in commercial landfills for the purpose of efficiency, cost reduction, and space retention in actual LLW repositories. The UK’s success in managing its nuclear waste is due to its constant engagement with the public and continuous maintenance of regulatory overview throughout each transfer.
The UK has three landfill sites that are permitted to dispose of non-radioactive waste as well as VLLW. Appropriate restrictions concerning exposure levels and volumes of nuclear waste allowed into these commercial landfills are maintained throughout the entire process. To access this service, customers must fill out a waste inquiry form, including a detailed description of the waste and radioactivity levels, a quantitative estimate of levels in need of disposal, and a proposed packaging method. This review is typically completed within 30 days.
Since 2010, the UK’s nuclear waste strategy has resulted in an 85 percent diversion of LLW from the LLW repository in Cumbria, which was quickly running out of space. It has also involved a number of revolutionary designs, including updated and expanded disposal route options and the implementation of a “waste hierarchy” that helps producers categorize and manage their waste. This system evaluates all the options for waste management, with waste prevention being the most desirable, and disposal being the last resort. It effectively forces waste producers to take responsibility for their own waste and make a conscious and continuous effort in choosing the most efficient strategy. Because of the diversity of radioactive waste, access to a proportional variety of regulative resources is necessary.
The four disposal facilities here in the US is one more than in the UK, but the US also has over 6 times the nuclear capacity the UK has, in addition to more medical research facilities. That means a much larger low-level waste stream. It also means that waste must be moved to one of four facilities in a country 33 times the size of the UK. If lowering restrictions on disposing of very low-level waste — which makes up the overwhelming majority of the low-level waste stream — led to improved disposal and freed up space for more dangerous waste in the UK, similar results could be achieved here in the US.
While changing nuclear waste regulations to reflect the differing risks of low-level waste won’t solve everything, it is a big step towards unleashing the full potential of nuclear power in the energy sector. Like all energy systems, nuclear comes with risks. Managing these risks appropriately is key to nuclear’s future viability as a zero-carbon energy source in the U.S. The diversity of radioactive waste means that a nuanced disposal system is not only a reasonable goal, but also a crucial one — crucial for human health and safety, crucial for improved social capital, and crucial for the future of our environment.