What Have We Learned About Disposing Of Low-Level Radioactive Waste?

Questions, fears, concerns and disturbing anecdotes surface whenever the disposal of low-level radioactive waste is discussed. Some are raised by residents in communities that are looking into the facts and may be thinking of volunteering to host New Jersey's disposal facility. Others are supplied by groups opposed to nuclear power. Whatever their source, these concers should be reviewed and addressed by any community that might consider hosting the disposal facility.

One concern that is often cited is:

"They don't tell you that all the other radwaste dumps leaked."

The implication is : This will happen here, in your community, if you choose to host the disposal facility.

But: What about the early disposal facilities? Did they fail? Why? And what have we learned from them?

What Were the Problems?

There were problems with the early commercial disposal facilities at Maxey Flats, Kentucky; Sheffield, Illinois; and West Valley, New York. These were built in the 1960's, before most of our current environmental laws and regulatory programs were in place. All were closed in the 1970's. There were also problems caused by early practices at the disposal facilities in Richland, Washington and Barnwell, South Carolina, which have been corrected, and at Beatty, Nevada, which has since been closed to radioactive waste.

Dumptruk.gif (100547 bytes)

Disposal technology no longer used.

The major causes of the difficulties at these sites were that:

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) Sites were inadequately analyzed and evaluated before the disposal facilities were constructed.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) Much of the waste was in liquid form.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) Much of the waste was delivered in cardboard and fiberboard boxes, which disintegrated  quickly after burial.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) The shallow-land burial trenches and covers did little to prevent the intrusion of surface and groundwater into the waste packages.

This led to radionuclide migration.

Because of these problems, a great deal of attention has been focused on improving waste form and packaging.

orange ball graphic Liquid waste is not permitted.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) Shallow-land burial of the waste in trenches has been ruled out as an option in many states, including New Jersey.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) The Barnwell facility, which does use shallow-land burial, now requires that waste packages be encased in concrete overpacks.

orangeba.gif (326 bytes) And the design of new disposal sites now incorporates multiple, engineered layers of protection to keep water away from the waste.

It should also be noted that even at the closed sites, remedial measures have been taken to avoid any radiation exposure to the public. No health hazards or any environmental effects have been observed, nor are there expected to be any. None of the stringent state or federal health and safety standards for off-site radiation exposure have been exceeded at any time at any of these sites.

What Have We Learned?

We have learned that even though these facilities had problems, they have caused no harm to human health or to the environment.

We have learned that these facilities don't become highly dangerous even when they do develop problems. Their problems can be addressed, monitored and mitigated.

We have learned that careful attention to the form of the waste increases the level of protection.

Any liquid waste must be converted to a solid prior to disposal.

Waste in solid form only will be accepted at a disposal facility.

Waste must be packaged in strong containers that meet strict federal guidelines.

We have learned that, before selecting a site for a disposal facility, geological and hydrological characteristics must be rigorously studied and evaluated to determine if the natural barriers will work in concert with the manmade structures of the disposal facility to safely contain the waste.

We have learned that monitoring the air, water and living organisms on and near the disposal site to detect any migration of radioactive materials can be effectively accomplished, and that problems can be remediated long before they threaten human health and the environment.

Artist's representation of a LLRW disposal site All low-level radioactive waste, including waste from nuclear power reactors, poses a health risk if not properly managed. Lessons learned during the early years of commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal led to regulatory reform of the system under which disposal is conducted. The improvements in waste form, as well as stringent requirements for site selection, operations, monitoring, and care after operations have ceased, will eliminate the primary causes of the leaks seen in the early disposal facilities, and will effectively isolate the waste from the people and the environment.

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Last updated April 1998