Life after barnwell

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Courtesy of Security Shredding & Storage News

Medical facilities that retain dumping privileges at Barnwell, South Carolina’s host site for low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) are breathing sighs of relief, while dozens of former clients from outcast states are still holding their breath. The Federal LLRW Policy Act (1980) limited accesses to Barnwell last year to members of the three-state Atlantic Compact. The act was supposed to foster development of regional LLRW disposal facilities by encouraging states to form regional interstate compacts. Critics argue, then and now, that the law is costly, litigation-riddled, and neither more safe nor more constructive than the free market system that served waste generators for decades prior to the 1980’s.

While some generators of medical LLRW were as prepared as they could be for the new policy, a void of LLRW disposal space remains nationwide. Despite 26 years advance notice, the 36 states that lost access to Barnwell have developed no new facilities, licensed to dispose of waste Classes A, B, and C. Only Texas is pursuing development of a new site in Andrews County. Many medical facilities remain aghast. The search continues for solutions to mounting piles of the controversial waste. Solutions to the problem are cropping up, but very slowly.

Low-level radioactive waste is produced by medical facilities, pharmaceutical manufacturers and medical research centers. Much of the medical community’s LLRW has a short half-life and can go into a designated, on-site storage area to decay until it’s ready for disposal at a landfill. Everything else, anything with a half-life greater than 300 days, or in a concentration larger than .05 mircrocuries per gram must take a different course.

At present, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recognizes three LLRW disposal facilities: Barnwell; Clive, Utah; and Richland, Washington. The Washington facility is open to waste generators in 11 states of the Rocky Mountain area and the Northwest. Barnwell is available only to New Jersey and Connecticut. The Utah facility is open to all 50 states, but it only accepts Class A waste, which is the most common and least radioactive LLRW. The Andrews County, Texas facility, which is expected to open in 2010, will be accepting Class A, B and C waste. Access to the site will be limited to Texas and Vermont.

Class A waste, such as clothing, gloves or booties contaminated with radioactive materials (with a half-life of 100 years or less), amounts to about 96 percent of all LLRW, according to David McIntyre Public Affairs Officer at the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Most of this low-level radioactive medical waste will decay in less than 100 years - to the point where it is deemed “safe.” In accordance with 10 CFR Part 61.7, Class B and C waste forms or containers should be designed to be stable (e.g., maintain physical properties and identity) for over 300 years (not 300 half-lives). Also, Class B waste must decay to acceptable hazard to an intruder within 100 years. Class C waste must decay to acceptable hazard to an intruder within 500 years. Class B or C disposal could be a blood irradiator, which contains cesium-137 (Cs-137). Whether the blood irradiator would require a Class B or C disposal is dependent on the initial activity of the source when it is disposed.

In its 2008-2012 Considerations For Extended Interim Storage of LLRW By Fuel Cycle and Materials Licensees, the NRC expresses concerns for LLRW that currently has no place to go other than a storage area. The guidance was issued last May to non-power plant licensees, such as LLRW producing medical facilities, “because they don’t have the experience of storing LLRW for extended periods of time,” says McIntyre.

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