Ac­tivists fight ef­fort to im­port ra­dioac­tive waste from Canada

The Phoenix - - FRONT PAGE - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­ @PottstownNews on Twitter

Apro­posal to im­port as much as 10,000 tons of ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial from Canada into the U.S. for pro­cess­ing has sev­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal groups try­ing to re­verse a de­ci­sion by the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion.

UniTech Ser­vices Group has 10 lo­ca­tions in the United States and plans to ship the Cana­dian ma­te­rial to two of them — at 401 N. Fifth Ave. in Roy­ers­ford, and a plant in Mor­ris, Illi­nois, out­side Chicago, said Michael Fuller, man­ager of health, physics and engi­neer­ing for UniTech.

Among the company’s ser­vices are the man­age­ment, clean­ing, sort­ing, clas­si­fy­ing, de­con­tam­i­na­tion, re­cy­cling and dis­posal of tools, cloth­ing and ma­te­rial used in the nu­clear in­dus­try.

“Specif­i­cally, the company’s plans call for the sort­ing and repack­ag­ing of the ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als; re­cov­er­ing and re­cy­cling those ma­te­ri­als that can be re­leased for un­re­stricted use; and then ex­port­ing back to Canada any re­main­ing ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial,” NRC spokesman Neil Shee­han stated in an email to Dig­i­tal First Me­dia.

Last Oc­to­ber, the company ap­plied to the NRC for per­mits to ship ma­te­rial both to and from Canada, some of which would be ra­dioac­tive at dif­fer­ent lev­els.

On March 30, the NRC de­ter­mined that the pro­posal re­quired no im­port per­mit, only an ex­port per­mit — an ac­tion with which the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups have dis­agreed in sev­eral le­gal briefs filed in April and again in May.

Those groups are the Nu­clear In­for­ma­tion and Re­source Ser­vice; Be­yond Nu­clear; the Nu­clear En­ergy In­for­ma­tion Ser­vice; the Ten­nessee En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil and the Ci­ti­zens for Al­ter­na­tives to Chem­i­cal Con­tam­i­na­tion.

These groups have joined to­gether to file co­op­er­a­tive le­gal briefs and, in the case of the Nu­clear In­for­ma­tion and Re­source Ser­vice, cite the prox­im­ity of Pottstown res­i­dent and mem­ber Nora Natoff to the Roy­ers­ford plant as rea­son enough to give them le­gal stand­ing in the mat­ter.

What has fol­lowed in those briefs, and in the company’s re­sponse filed in June, is a deep dive into the le­gal lan­guage of reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing all things ra­dioac­tive:

• What is ra­dioac­tive?

• What counts as “lowlevel ra­dioac­tive waste”?

• How much risk is posed by the roughly one truck per week Fuller es­ti­mated would ar­rive at the Roy­ers­ford plant?

• How much risk is posed by prox­im­ity to the two pro­cess­ing plants?

• Who has stand­ing to “in­ter­vene” in a reg­u­la­tory mat­ter be­tween the NRC and UniTech?

These bat­tles of le­gal rhetoric are im­por­tant be­cause how the NRC ul­ti­mately reg­u­lates the pro­posal will turn on how what is be­ing im­ported, pro­cessed, re­cy­cled and ex­ported is de­fined in the law.

Fuller said the company

is merely propos­ing to do with the tools, cloth­ing and other ma­te­rial from the Cana­dian nu­clear in­dus­try what it has been do­ing for the U.S. nu­clear in­dus­try for decades.

But be­cause it’s cross­ing an in­ter­na­tional border, a new set of rules is im­posed by law.

For ex­am­ple, al­though UniTech can dis­pose of any U.S. ma­te­rial de­ter­mined to fit the le­gal def­i­ni­tion of “low-level ra­dioac­tive waste” in sev­eral spe­cific U.S. land­fills, it can­not legally do so with the same ma­te­rial from other coun­tries, Fuller ex­plained.

So that is the ma­te­rial that will be ex­ported back to Canada, which would

have the high­est level of ra­dioac­tiv­ity and which he es­ti­mated would be about 20 per­cent of what is brought into the U.S.

“When you think about it, these groups are fight­ing to keep us from ex­port­ing ra­dioac­tive waste,” said Fuller. “It’s a lit­tle ironic.”

He said the Roy­ers­ford plant uses a lot of tem­po­rary work­ers be­cause the work there is “cyclic,” largely tied to the sched­ules of when nu­clear plants have a “re­fu­el­ing out­age” last­ing sev­eral weeks.

Dur­ing those out­ages, fa­mil­iar to res­i­dents who live near or work at Ex­elon Nu­clear’s Lim­er­ick gen­er­at­ing sta­tion, much main- ten­ance and long-sched­uled re­pairs are con­ducted, all which gen­er­ates a lot of waste for UniTech to sort through.

“We can go from hav­ing 20 peo­ple, to a 100, so we use a lot of tem­po­rary work­ers,” Fuller said.

Al­low­ing the im­por­ta­tion of the Cana­dian waste would in­crease the work at the Roy­ers­ford plant by about 30 per­cent, which would allow UniTech to “flat­ten out” those cy­cles and keep more peo­ple on full time, Fuller said

“There’s no doubt it would in­crease jobs in Illi­nois and Penn­syl­va­nia,” he said.

On the other side, the en­vi­ron­men­tal groups ar­gue that UniTech can’t have it both ways.

They say NRC should not allow UniTech to im­port “ra­dioac­tive waste” from Canada un­der what the NRC calls a “gen­eral im­port li­cense” — which is less spe­cific and re­stric­tive — claim­ing the ma­te­rial be­ing trans­ported is not dan­ger­ously ra­dioac­tive, while at the same time ad­mit­ting that some of the ma­te­rial will be found to be too ra­dioac­tive to be dis­posed of in the U.S.

As a re­sult of that ad­mis­sion by UniTech, they ar­gue, the NRC should re­quire a spe­cific im­port li­cense, which would out­line more clearly what would be trans­ported, thus al- low­ing the public to bet­ter as­sess the en­vi­ron­men­tal and health risks it faces in the trans­port and pro­cess­ing of that ma­te­rial, be­cause the ex­port li­cense does not pro­vide enough in­for­ma­tion.

Po­ten­tial risks in­clude be­ing down­wind of a pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity; the po­ten­tial for ra­di­a­tion to en­ter the sewer sys­tem, which ul­ti­mately dis­charges into the Schuylkill River; or ex­po­sure along trans­porta­tion routes, the ac­tivists out­lined in their briefs.

They also note, for ex­am­ple, that some of the ma­te­rial orig­i­nally listed for trans­port by UniTech last Oc­to­ber in­cludes sev­eral plu­to­nium iso­topes and spe­cific ma­te­ri­als not cov­ered by the “gen­eral im­port li­cense.”

The mat­ter re­mains un­re­solved, al­though Fuller said UniTech in­tends to check on the sta­tus of NRC’s de­lib­er­a­tions next week.

Fuller said “we could start to­mor­row” if NRC ul­ti­mately de­cides to allow the pro­posal to move for­ward as it stands.

An atomic safety and li­cens­ing board has been es­tab­lished to re­view the ac­tivists’ re­quest for a public hear­ing, Shee­han wrote.

“In or­der for a hear­ing to be granted, the groups would have to es­tab­lish stand­ing and have at least one con­tention ad­mit­ted,” he wrote.


UniTech’s Roy­ers­ford fa­cil­ity, the white build­ing against the rail­road tracks, is lo­cated at 401N. Third Ave.

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