Nuclear power plants, hospitals and other generators of radioactive waste would be allowed to dispose of some of it like ordinary trash -- in landfills, sewers and incinerators -- under a policy announced yesterday by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The radiation level in waste products such as workers' clothing, animal carcasses from research laboratories and packaging from reactor replacement parts would be classified as "below regulatory concern," and the materials would be exempted from current requirements that they be disposed of in controlled, licensed waste repositories.
NRC Chairman Kenneth M. Carr said at a news conference that the policy would "benefit our nation in several ways" at negligible risk to the public. Allowing waste generators to dispose of this material in uncontrolled facilities, he said, would save money and enable regulators to "focus on materials that pose much more significant risks to the public."
But antinuclear activists and environmental groups, who have monitored the development of the policy through two contentious years, denounced it immediately and demanded that Congress overturn it. The House Interior subcommittee on energy and the environment scheduled a hearing for July 26.
Carr said publication of the policy would not immediately change the way any waste is handled. He said it would provide a "coherent framework" for granting applications from nuclear operators to have some of their waste deregulated. Up to now, he said, the commission has granted disposal exemptions for some radioactive items, such as smoke detectors, on a "case by case basis."
Anticipating the NRC action, five states including Virginia have already moved to bar its implementation within their borders, according to a coalition of antinuclear groups. Opponents of the policy said it would unnecessarily -- if marginally -- increase the cancer risk, disrupt recycling programs and allow radioactive material to be recirculated in consumer products.
Low-level nuclear waste is defined as all nuclear waste except spent fuel rods. Some of it can be lethal, but much of it consists of material that is only slightly radioactive. According to the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, more than 1.4 million cubic feet of low-level waste was shipped to NRC-licensed repositories in 1988.
Carr said there is no way to tell how much waste would be affected by the new policy because "we don't have any applications yet." The NRC policy would apply only to waste generated by commercial and research facilities, but the Energy Department in 1988 decided that its nuclear weapons plants would also reclassify their low-level waste according to NRC guidelines.
The policy states that waste may be deregulated if it does not expose any person to a radiation dose of more than 1 millirem per year, except for a "limited number" of people who might be exposed to 10 millirem. Robert M. Bernero, director of the NRC's office of nuclear material safety and safeguards, said the average American already receives 360 millirem a year from natural causes -- mostly radon gas -- and from medical procedures.
According to the NRC, the 1 millirem dose corresponds to "an annual risk of death from a radiation-induced cancer" of about 5 cases in 10 million exposures. Critics of the policy said the real figure would be much higher, especially because some nuclear byproducts such as carbon 14 would be discharged into the air through incineration.
Some nuclear utilities have said they will not seek to have any waste reclassified, even though it would save money, because the public relations damage would not be worth it. But the Nuclear Management and Resource Council, the industry's technical branch, is expected to vote at a meeting this morning to apply for an exemption on behalf of the entire industry.