Low-Level Radioactive Waste Crisis in the Making

Last Updated May 27, 2008 5:35 PM EDT

Radioactive Hazard SymbolA new radioactive-waste crisis is about to go critical -- the scheduled closing of a commercial low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) processing facility in Barnwell, S.C., which is a landfill owned by the state and operated by Energy Solutions.

The preferred method of disposal for LLRW is shallow land burials. This disposal technique places waste below the land surface but above the water table. LLRW containers are entombed in concrete vaults placed in trenches.

As the 235-acre landfill is 90 percent filled, after June 30, 2008, the South Carolina legislature decided that the Barnwell site would only accept waste from organizations located in South Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey -- the three states that make up the Atlantic Interstate Low-Level Radioactive Waste Management Compact.

In March 2007, a bill to delay the closing of nonregional waste through fiscal year 2023 was shot down in South Carolina due to lack of legislative support.

Closing the site is raising environmental and security concerns as to how and where to transport and dispose of LLRW waste from the 36 other states currently using the facility.

Groundwater contamination is a risk of LLRW disposal and long-term exposure to LLRW increases one's risk of cancer. In addition, too many disposal sites spread across the nation raises security issues, such as terrorists looking for material to build "dirty-bombs."

Low-level radioactive waste, which is defined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as radioactive waste other than high-level and wastes from uranium recovery operations, is commonly disposed of in near-surface facilities rather than in a geological repository that is required for high-level waste. Examples of LLRW include radioactively contaminated protective clothing, medical, byproducts of spent nuclear fuel, and contaminated soil and debris.

There are only three disposal facilities in the United States for LLRW, with Energy Solutions licensed to accept LLRW in Barnwell and Clive, Utah.

The third site is located in Richland, Washington. Owned and operated by U.S. Ecology. Richland only accepts waste from the Northwest and Rocky Mountain compacts.

Barnwell and Richland accept Classes A through C of LLRW, whereas Clive only accepts Class A. Radioactivity levels define the class, from relatively low for Class A waste (slightly above natural radiation background levels, such as mildly contaminated clothing) to relatively high for Class C waste (such as nuclear plant components), which requires deeper disposal.

The rate of decay makes Class A waste safe anywhere from days to about 100 years (depending on radioactive isotopes present) and Class C waste safe after 500 to 1,000 years.

The Clive facility generates about 14 percent of Energy Solutions' net revenue. Although management believes it has sufficient capacity for many more years of operations at the 1,557-acre site, the disposal cell's license limits the scope of business to only Class A radioactive materials.

The building of new disposal capacity is almost nil, given public sentiment and legal obstructions (combined with the labyrinth of federal and state licensing issues, from environmental impact studies to security risk assessment protocols).

The only landfill built and operated after Landfill Disposal Restrictions were put in place in the late 1990s is in Texas. Waste Control Specialists LLC, a subsidiary of waste management operator Valhi Inc, operates a fully permitted 1,338-acre treatment, storage, and disposal facility six-miles from the New Mexico border. However, legislation passed only encompasses the near-surface land disposal of low-level and mixed low-level radioactive civilian wastes from Texas and its compact partner, the state of Vermont.

One solution for the pending LLRW crisis would be the re-opening of Department of Energy (DOE) run facilities. For many years, the department's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, operated the only facilities for disposal of both commercial and defense programs' low-level waste. Over time, however, increasingly strict disposal site waste acceptance criteria and state involvement required many DOE-run facilities, including Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Oak Ridge Reservation to stop accepting off-site low-level waste for disposal. And, stricter land use designations makes it even less plausible that the DOE would even ruminate the possibility of accepting commercial LLRW once more.

Currently, spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste -- which can remain radioactive for thousands to millions of years! -- are stored in temporary facilities at some 125 sites in 39 states. These storage sites are located in a mixture of cities, suburbs, and rural areas. In the United States today, more than 161 million people reside within 75 miles of temporarily stored nuclear waste, according to the Department of Energy. Looking to Congress for viable options regarding the storage of LLRW? Forget about it!

Now, hundreds of industries, universities and research laboratories in 36 states must either learn to minimize waste or prepare to store their low-level nuclear waste until a solution to the landfill problem is found.

  • David Phillips

    David Phillips has more than 25 years' experience on Wall Street, first as a financial consultant and then as an equity analyst for several investment banking firms. He sifts through SEC filings for his blog The 10Q Detective, looking for financial statement soft spots, such as depreciation policies, warranty reserves and restructuring charges. He has been widely quoted in outlets such as BusinessWeek, The International Herald Tribune, Investor's Business Daily, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and The Wall Street Journal.