06/11/2010 04:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Administration Should Say "No" to Blending Radioactive Waste

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will consider whether to allow for the first time nuclear waste processors to "blend" higher level radioactive waste with the lowest level radioactive waste at a hearing on June 17. Low-level radioactive waste is generated by universities, hospitals, and commercial nuclear power plants, and is classified as Class A, B. or C depending on the concentration of the waste's radioactivity (with Class A having the lowest concentration). The proposal before the Commission would allow Class A waste to be mixed with more radioactive Class B and C waste and still be classified as Class A. If the proposal goes through, "blending" would allow utilities, processors, and waste disposal sites to avoid existing environmental and safety requirements for how they dispose of the hotter waste.

The problem is that the new "blended" waste has significantly higher concentrations of radioactivity than the typical lowest level radioactive waste. In fact evidence submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission shows that "blended" waste would remain 450 times more radioactive than the current safety standard for the lowest level waste. In the past year, state governments have also had to deal with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's reclassification of Depleted Uranium (which becomes more radioactive over time) as Class A waste.

Blending on a large scale in commercial operations is a regressive process. It is an attempt to circumvent long-standing NRC regulations that establish classes of low-level radioactive waste. These classes were created to protect the public and the environment from higher and more hazardous concentrations of radioactivity. The failure to follow these rules results in eroding the public's confidence in government regulation of low level nuclear waste and ultimately impacts the public's confidence toward nuclear energy and its future in our country.

From a sustainability perspective, blending is a failure. Nuclear waste management policies throughout the world strive for concentration and containment. Blending does just the opposite--it disperses and dilutes radioactivity over a greater volume, ultimately increasing the volume of Class A low-level radioactive waste and making it impossible for blended waste to gain any benefits from volume reduction and waste form stabilization techniques.

In addition, proponents of blending say that the practice will help alleviate the problem of disposal site access for utilities that generate higher level radioactive Class B/C waste in 36 states. These generators have had nowhere to dispose of Class B/C waste since the closure of the disposal site in Barnwell, SC to most generators. According to the leading nuclear energy industry group, the Electric Power Research Institute ("EPRI"), at least 5,000 cubic feet of higher radioactive Class B/C waste will continue to be stranded, even if environmental safeguards are reduced and large scale blending were allowed. This is in part because there is an insufficient amount of lower radioactive Class A resin waste to successfully blend all Class B/C resin waste into Class A waste.

Blending cannot address various other types of radioactive Class B/C waste such as medical and scientific research waste, irradiated hardware, sealed sources, and filters used primarily by nuclear power plants. These wastes, by their nature, simply cannot be "blended" together with lower radioactive Class A waste. What this means is that even if the Obama Administration and the NRC lower the environmental safeguards and allow blending - it won't fully solve the problem for hospitals, utilities and other generators in the 36 states left without a disposal path.

For all these reasons the Obama Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should oppose industry efforts to allow blending and keep the current safety and environmental standards.