Radiation Mop-Up After a Nuclear Plant is Decommissioned, How Safe is Safe? BY BETTY BRINK Dallas If something comes out of this meeting today that sets a standard that the seventh generation can look back to, [they will] say these people here around this table were … par 7 ticipating in something that changed the whole world … and made it a safer place to live. Joe Campbell, Spokesman for the Mde of Minnesota. March 23, Dallas NATIVE-AMERICAN leaders traditionally based important decisions on how they would affect “the seventh generation” of their descendents. We are already almost two generations into the Atomic Age and the regulators of nuclear power tell us they have no standards, no radiological criteria for the safe cleanup of nuclear-contaminated locations after they are shut down or abandoned. There is no “clear and consistent regulatory” basis for determining how clean a site must be to be decommissioned, according to an Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues paper published in January. It might be described as “the accumulated debris of years of recorded folly,” to borrow a phrase from Jack Kerouac. For the entire industry, from nuclear medicine to nuclear fuel cycle plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “very rough estimate” of total volume of contaminated wastes and debris is somewhere near 3 million cubic meters 106.05 million cubic feet. Fivesixths of that volume was produced by the nuclear fuel cycle industry. For a single nuclear plant, such as Texas Utility Electric’s Comanche Peak Unit 1 near Glen Rose, the estimated volume of waste from decommissioning is 20,000 cubic meters, not including the spent fuel that will be transferred to the Department of Energy if there is a place to put it. If not, the spent fuel, with a half-life of forever for all practical purposes, will have to remain on site. Comanche Peak’s Unit 2 recently received its full-power license and is scheduled to begin generating electricity this summer, doubling the volume of waste from the facility, if both units run the full 40 years of their licensed lifetimes. Unit 2 is probably the Betty Brink is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth last plant of its size 1,150 megawatts that will ever be built by a privately-owned public utility in this country. At least eight plants are now in the process of decommissioning or awaiting cleanup, ranging in size from the relatively small 176 megawatt Yankee Rowe reactor in Maine to secondgeneration giants like Oregon’s 1,130megawatt Trojan reactor. Costs will be astronomical, between $50 million and $3 billion per reactor, according to Worldwatch Institute researcher Cynthia Pollock’s 1987 estimates. Construction costs at Comanche Peak were estimated to be more than $11 billion for construction, so it can be assumed that costs of decommissioning will be in the high billions. And there is no way to estimate the costs of storage and maintenance of radioactive wastes that will be hazardous for millennia. Because of a recently discovered oversight, that “current regulations do not explicitly address radiological criteria for decommissioning,” the NRC announced it would seek citizen input and invited citizens and activists to a series of regional hearings. Some NRC critics believe the meetings are a response to more than unclear decommissioning standards, that the agency was really reacting to challenges by outraged citizens when the agency tried to deregulate certain low-level nuclear waste and place it under the label “Below Regulatory Concern.” The classification, on which the agency had to back down, would have allowed for disposal in any landfill, or for recycling into consumer products without labelling potentially a huge savings for the industry. For two days in March, the NRC and the brought a disparate group together in Dallas, as part of its four-month-long series of public debates scheduled for various U.S. sites, in an agency attempt to get a fix on this difficult issue. The goal of the meetings establish radiation exposure standards that can be written in to NRC deregulatory law filling the void that now exists. The new NRC regulations could, however, have the affect of displacing current, more stringent, EPA standards governing other types of radiation exposure. Facing the Feds across the table in Dallas were citizen activists and representatives from Indian tribal councils and other Native American organizations, state regulators, health physicists, industry reps all from the 10 states included in the NRC’s Region IV. Comments of activists and other participants suggest that many have lost faith in the agencies that regulate the industry. “I’m really dismayed by the whiteness of this room,” Laraine Hofstetter of Albuquerque’ s Southwest Organizing Project said in her opening remarks, reminding the regulators that “communities of color” are frequent locations of environmental disasters. “That’s where the sites go in for hazardous waste, where the incinerators go in and where Native American land is grabbed.” Though there are many minority communities in the 10-state region, Native Americans were the only minority invited to the Dallas meeting. Alva Morrison is from New Mexico and, like Hofstetter, is a long-time opponent of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, designed to store low-level nuclear waste in underground salt domes near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Morrison said that those at the table who were making large sums of money from industries that created nuclear waste “should hang your heads in shame.” Janet Gordon is director of Citizens Call, and chair of the National Committee for Radiation Victims, of Cedar City, Utah. Her family lived downwind from the Nevada test site during atmospheric testings and her brother died of cancer at age 26. She has cancer and her father is dying of cancer and she raised the issue of accountability: “The reality of what we are living is what must be heard. We, the victims, are the face of the nuclear age … the problems that you have created will live long past the seventh generation. … Who looks out for the victims? When your mistakes kill and maim my family, who is responsible? When you generated the isotope, you had the responsibility, you had the liability to take care of it … the NRC has the responsibility to make sure that the public is protected. We are not statistics. No level is safe.” Joe Campbell is a spokesperson for the Mdewakanton Sioux Tribal Council, whose lands in Minnesota are overshadowed by the Prairie Island nuclear plant built in 1968. Campbell’s people have suffered a six-fold increase over the national average in the incidence of cancers and the tribe has recently gone to court to stop the plant’s owners, 16 JULY 2, 1993
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