Activists fight effort to import radioactive waste from Canada
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.