The Multinational Monitor


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Waste to East:

Pressure Builds to Export
U.S. Nuclear Waste

by Kenny Bruno

THE U.S. NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION'S (NRC) new Rule on the Import and Export of Radioactive Waste took effect on August 21, 1995. The next day, Master International Systems USA, a company formed expressly to export "low-level" radioactive waste, applied to the NRC to ship such waste to Russia.

Under the Master plan, the fledgling export company would acquire waste from Scientific Ecology Group (SEG), a Westinghouse subsidiary in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and ship it to the Russian Federal Republic of Dagestan, which borders the Chechen Republic, Georgia, Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea.

Despite its name, "low-level" radioactive waste (LLRW) refers to almost all nuclear waste except "high-level" waste from spent nuclear fuel. Even by conservative estimates, "low-level" wastes remain hazardous for 500 years. Some radionuclides that are commonly included in such LLRW have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. Although no new commercial nuclear power plants are being built in the United States, the country's 109 operating nuclear power plants generate millions of cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste each year. This waste takes the form of instruments, tubes and other reactor hardware, filters, paper and protective clothing contaminated by water that has passed through a reactor's nuclear core and spent-fuel pool. Only a small fraction of the radioactivity in LLRW comes from research labs, hospitals and universities.

Westinghouse's SEG is the world's largest processor of low-level radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants and other LLRW producers from across the country pay SEG to incinerate and compact waste. After packing the incinerated waste into barrels, SEG pays to dispose of it in dump sites, a process that is becoming increasingly costly in the United States.

On November 2, Westinghouse announced that it would "not participate in the deal" with Master International Systems. This left Master with an application in the works but no waste supplier, all but killing the chances of its application being approved. In addition, by mid-January, according to news reports, the Chechen war had spread to Dagestan, a situation likely to scare off other potential waste suppliers. However, the financial and political dynamics driving the deal remain unchanged. Community opposition to radioactive dumps and rising costs in the United States will continue to tempt waste generators and entrepreneurs to look abroad for dump sites. Master's was the first application to export radioactive waste under the new NRC rule, but it is unlikely to be the last.

Master plan

Master is made up of three businessmen from Queens, New York. Their idea was to take at least 1.3 million waste barrels from SEG and send them by tractor trailer about 800 miles to Bangor, Maine. Master would then fly the waste in Russian military cargo planes to Machazkala, Dagestan, with a stop at Ireland's Shannon Airport for refueling. At Dagestan, Master would hand the waste over to the importer, Moscow-based Cosmos, for trucking to its final destination, a Cold War-era bomb shelter built for Soviet generals. This bunker lies 66 kilometers from Machazkala Airport and is burrowed one kilometer into the Caucasus mountains.

Although this may sound like a long, torturous and risky way to dispose of U.S. radioactive waste, Master Secretary Peter Toscano insists that it is a great idea. Noting the poor conditions at U.S. nuclear landfills, Toscano says, "I want to do it better, I want to do it safer, I want to do it cleaner."

Whether or not Russian disposal would be better, safer and cleaner is debatable. What is clear is that it is illegal under Russian law. "Import for the purpose of storage or permanent disposal of radioactive waste and material from other states, sea dumping, sending into space for the purpose of permanent disposal of radioactive waste is forbidden," says Article 50 of the Russian Federal Law on the Conservation of the Natural Environment.

Nevertheless, Master officials claimed they had import clearance from the Dagestan Council of Ministers. In support of this claim, they submitted a document to the NRC that they said was signed by the Council of Ministers. Asked about this by Greenpeace Russia, Dagestan Minister of Ecology S.I. Kurbanov wrote in a September 12, 1995 letter that imports of radioactive waste to Dagestan were "not considered and cannot be considered." Echoing Russian law, Kurbanov wrote that "importation of radioactive waste and materials into the Republic of Dagestan for the purpose of burial is prohibited."

Flight-path flaps

Despite Russia's seemingly unambiguous import prohibitions, the NRC application was kept alive for months, touching off controversies in Russia, Ireland and Maine.

For their part, Bangor International Airport officials, suffering from a revenue slump, saw in the radioactive waste an opportunity to make some money. An airport briefing paper emphasized that SEG was "well respected" by federal authorities, that "the program does not pose any increased risk to the community" and that "the consequences of an accident are manageable."

Bangor residents were not convinced. Debbie Skinner, a marketing professor at the University of Maine, learned of the plan while having dinner with neighbor Cheryl Pelletier. Skinner says she was "shocked to think that something like this could occur in my backyard" and "outraged that they would even consider shipping it out of the country."

The two neighbors contacted local officials and found, in Skinner's words, that "there was a lot of mystery and secrecy. The people involved weren't knowledgeable about the industry, they were just in it to make money." Soon, they were joined in their efforts to oppose the Master scheme by Suzanne Malis-Anderson, a school teacher who lives near the airport.

Even after SEG's pullout had apparently dashed plans to convert Bangor into a radioactive waste airlift, the three women formed Citizens For Nuclear Education (CNE), which plans to continue educating Bangor area residents about radiation hazards. Looking beyond Bangor, Malis-Anderson says that if another town is selected as a waste transfer area, CNE would "share our strategies with concerned citizens in that area."

The Master application to the NRC seemed to assume that the Bangor and Shannon airports would grant permission for Russian planes carrying radioactive waste to take off and land at their facilities. While Bangor Airport officials were open to this idea, Irish officials dismissed it out of hand. Ireland's Energy and Transport Minister Emmet Stagg said he would "refuse permission for aircraft carrying such waste to land at Irish airports," according to the Irish Times.

The Russian import broker, Cosmos, also appears to have been a weaker link than Master had suggested. Master officials claimed that the importer was a large concern that had an exclusive agreement with Master to import radioactive waste. However, Cosmos official S.V. Karipova wrote to the Russian press agency ITAR-TASS on July 13, 1995 that Cosmos "has no intentions of importing onto the territory of Russia radioactive substances (neither in the form of waste, nor in any other form)." The letter says that reports of the company's involvement are false.

Finally, Westinghouse, having satisfied itself that the scheme really was illegal, pulled out of the deal. But questions remain: Why did Westinghouse allow its subsidiary SEG to explore a project that was so clearly illegal, and why is it interested in export of radioactive waste in the first place?

The answer is simple: the cost of disposing radioactive waste within the United States has skyrocketed. SEG, which is the country's largest handler of radioactive waste, now pays upwards of $300 per cubic foot to use the landfill in Barnwell, South Carolina. Barnwell recently instituted a $235 tax on each cubic foot disposed of there. Peter Toscano claims he could profitably dispose of the waste in Dagestan for "less than half" of what Barnwell charges. At the suggestion of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Master planned to sweeten the deal by donating $25 per barrel to a fund for decontamination and health care to radiation victims in Russia. The company felt there would still be plenty of money left over. Says Toscano: "Do we need a billion dollars? No. Would I like to make a million dollars? Absolutely."

Adding to these economic pressures are environmental and political problems surrounding waste disposal in the United States. The 1980 Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act makes states responsible for LLRW disposal. Under this system, groups of states band together in "compacts" and select a common dump site. Although the site-selection process for the compacts began in 1985, not a single compact site has been finalized. The only commercial dumpsite available to all U.S. nuclear waste generators -- at Barnwell -- has been plagued by containment problems, and has leaked radiation into the soil and groundwater.

The law and waste

International recognition of the exploitative nature of international trade in waste assumed official status in September 1995. At a meeting of the Basel Convention On The Transboundary Movement Of Hazardous Wastes, the 91 signatory countries amended the convention to prohibit hazardous waste exports from the 25 most industrialized countries to the rest of the world. The United States is not a signatory to this convention. If it ever did sign, it would be prohibited from sending hazardous quantities of such substances as lead, cadmium or PCBs to convention signatories such as Russia.

The Basel Convention is ambiguous, however, on nuclear wastes. Article 1 says that radioactive wastes are excluded from the agreement if they are "subject to other international control systems, including international instruments." Some government officials have interpreted this to mean radioactive wastes are covered by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has a Code of Practice on trade in wastes. Others argue that the IAEA Code of Practice is not an "international control system" because it is voluntary. Years are likely to pass before the Basel Convention resolves this ambiguity.

The United States, which is the world's largest producer of hazardous wastes and the only industrialized country not to have signed the Convention, still opposes the Basel hazardous waste ban. The NRC's new Rule on Import and Export of Radioactive Waste is designed to "reflect the principles" of the IAEA Code of Practice but not the Basel ban. The NRC argued in a March 1995 draft of its import and export rule that "international commerce in radioactive waste may be desirable." As examples, the NRC cites shipments for research as well as so-called "take-backs," which require spent radioactive components to be returned to the country of manufacture for disposal. While some such LLRW shipments may be beneficial, the NRC rule also allows for the possibility of large-scale commercial dumping, such as that envisioned in the Dagestan scheme.

The NRC's faith in the benefits of international trade in nuclear waste notwithstanding, Russia's prohibition on imports should have disqualified the Master application immediately. A March 1995 draft of the NRC rule said, "The commission's review is also governed by whether the receiving country consents to receipt of the radioactive waste." This phrase disappeared in the final published rule, under which the NRC passes such legal vetting to the State Department. The State Department and NRC allowed the Master application to go forward for several months, however, refusing to clarify what would happen if they definitively established that the deal violated Russian law. As the NRC processed the application, State Department officials insisted that they were "not prepared to deal with a generic case," refusing to comment on the Master application. This bureaucratic logjam then kept government officials and activists in three countries scrambling to respond to a plan that could have been killed straight away, had the State Department been willing to evaluate Russian laws before the NRC entered into the review policy.

Wanted: Radioactive homeland

"As long as Barnwell is open, there's not pressure" to find foreign dump sites, says Appalachian Compact Executive Director Mark Tenan.

But Barnwell won't stay open forever. With prices up and no prohibitions on the books, others will attempt to relieve the U.S. nuclear waste glut through new export schemes. "As long as there's nuclear power, it's not a dead issue," says Bangor activist Suzanne Malis-Andersen.

In fact, entrepeneurs have already dreamed up several other LLRW export schemes. The NRC Office of International Programs has received inquiries from at least one other New York company, which claims to have permission from the Mexican government to send radioactive waste there. U.K.-based Halycone Environment Ltd. has made a proposal to regional compacts in the United States that involves dumping low-level U.S. nuclear waste in an unnamed foreign country. Several compacts also have been approached by an international business consultant representing a Spanish firm that claims to have a contract for radioactive waste disposal in Guinea Bissau in northwest Africa.

Export options for radioactive waste are routinely discussed at meetings of the Low Level Radioactive Waste Forum, which is made up of the regional compacts and states. Most regional compact directors consider export too controversial, either for political reasons or because of liability issues. But some forum members consider exports to be an acceptable option, as long as the foreign site is "safe." One official of the Southwest Compact says export proposals should be treated the same way as proposals to transfer LLRW to another part of the United States.

The issue may boil down to a public relations battle over how so-called LLRW is perceived. Jeanne Moroney, who represented the Spanish firm with the Guinea Bissau dump plan, says that export "is a good idea, but the public doesn't understand radioactive waste, especially low level." Judith Johnsrud, a nuclear expert based in Pennsylvania disagrees, pointing to a "wide range of hazards" from "low-level" waste. Because of these long-lived hazards, Johnsrud says it is time to "abandon the idea of disposal, and think only of long-term storage."

It will not soon get easier to "control" these wastes. The rate of low-level waste production will actually increase as old U.S. plants are decomissioned, tapering only when and if nuclear power is phased out. Without export prohibition laws or the extension of strict liability overseas, the temptation to export this intractable and expensive problem will be overwhelming.

Edward Tucker, charged with lining up sources of U.S. radioactive waste to export to Halycone's unnamed foreign country, is ready to exploit that temptation. "We make TV components in this country and ship them to Korea to be assembled because it's cheaper," he observes. "This isn't any different." n

Radioactive Roulette

WITH AN INFORMED CITIZENRY asserting its power throughout the United States -- where federal regulations still allow burial in soil trenches of wastes as dangerous and long-lasting as plutonium-239, iodine-129, cesiums, and strontiums -- no new sacrifice areas for the nuclear power industry have opened in the United States in the last 30 years.

The steadfast citizen opposition continues in the face of major federal and state bureaucratic efforts and misleading industry and government public relations campaigns to force or entice communities to "host" a radioactive dump.

Radioactive waste flows along the path of least resistance. Until the 1960s, ocean dumping was common off of U.S. coasts; the practice was banned in 1970.

With ocean dumping becoming politically unacceptable, six commercial radioactive waste burial grounds opened in the 1960s. Four of those have since closed; sites remain open in South Carolina and Washington. Serious leakage problems have occurred at the six burial grounds, resulting in environmental contamination, taxpayer liabilities and long, expensive lawsuits. In the late 1970s, sloppy shipments to the operating dumpsites led the governors of three dumpsite states to warn that they would close their facilities to out-of-state waste unless Congress took action to spread the nation's waste.

Unable to pass a comprehensive law on commercial radioactive waste in the United States, Congress responded to the governors' threat by adopting legislation regarding "low-level" radioactive waste in 1980, and passed amendments in 1985. The federal law encourages states to join into "compacts" to make new regional dumps. After regulations for the classification and "disposal" of low-level radioactive waste were adopted in 1982, siting efforts began in 15 states.

For industry -- and, from the opposite end of the table, for communities -- the search for new dumps is a game of radioactive roulette. With so many siting efforts underway, the chances of coming up with one or two sites is greater than if only a few sites were under consideration.

So far, citizen opposition has thwarted the compact system, and no new burial grounds have been established under the 1980 federal law. In several states, fierce battles have been waged. In Illinois, the director of the state Department of Nuclear Safety pushed so hard for a site which was later found to have three aquifers and connection to a nearby town's drinking water supply that he lost his job. In New York, citizens in a dozen communities asserted their democratic rights to stop dumps. In Connecticut and New Jersey, town after town is educating itself and preventing unnecessary contamination. In Nebraska, support for a dump in the state is believed to have cost the previous governor her reelection. Boyd County residents now hold boat races on the proposed Nebraska site, just south of the South Dakota border, to highlight the wetland condition of the site. In Texas, a lawsuit on technical grounds brought an advanced siting proposal to its knees.

In several of the siting controversies, communities have leveled charges of environmental racism. The proposed dump in Texas is in seismically active Sierra Blanca, just 16 miles from the Rio Grande, a community that is nearly 70 percent Latino, with an average income of less than $8,000 per year. The proposed Ward Valley, California trenches would be just 18 miles from the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. The Ward Valley site is on aboriginal, sacred land of Native American nations who have lived in the area for centuries. It is also a prime critical habitat for one of the healthiest portions of the threatened desert tortoise population.

Although no new state sites have opened in recent decades, commercial ones have. Westinghouse subsidiary Scientific Ecology Group (the same company which considered shipping waste to Dagestan) quietly opened a new incinerator in Tennessee, with a second one expected soon for both radioactive and mixed waste. SEG also has a smelter for radioactive metal such as depleted uranium and numerous other "processing" activities. A commercial burial ground in Utah, Envirocare, recently expanded its operations to bury significant volumes of low-level radioactive waste and mixed radioactive and hazardous waste. Both of these sites take both commercial and weapons waste.

Initial federal attempts to deregulate waste by declaring some of it "Below Regulatory Concern," or BRC were revoked by Congress in 1992. But a similar NRC initiative, implemented in 1995, allows increased levels of radioactivity into air and water under supposedly improved radiation protection standards. These releases have resulted in radioactive sewage sludge in numerous communities downstream.

-- Dianne D'Arrigo

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