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  • Concerns Over Nuclear Waste Importation Should Not Lead to Ban


    Yesterday the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment unanimously approved legislation to ban the importation of foreign radioactive waste for disposal in the U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN) introduced H.R. 515: Radioactive Import Deterrence Act in January of 2009 and the bill could soon be up for a vote in the House of Representatives. The full committee will vote on the bill tomorrow with a full House at some future point after that. When the subcommittee approved the legislation Gordon said,

    We’re the only nation in the world that buries the nuclear waste of other countries in our soil. We already have limited space in our country for the radioactive waste generated by American entities and it should be preserved for them – the medical facilities, university research labs and utility companies.”

    While there are some legitimate concerns with low-level waste importation, there is also tremendous opportunity.

    Before weighing the pros and cons, it’s relevant to know what low-level nuclear waste is. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines low-level radioactive waste as items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. There are three classes of low-level waste: A, B and C, and, “class A low-level radioactive waste contains the lowest concentration of radioactive materials, and most of those materials have half-lives of less than five years.”

    One concern, as emphasized by Congressman Gordon is space. Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions wants to import 20,000 tons of low-level waste from Italy, which after processing in Tennessee would be trimmed down to 1,600 tons to be stored in Utah’s desert. Testimony from Margaret M. Doane of the NRC would suggest otherwise. In her written testimony on October 16, she said, “There do not appear to be any such concerns about capacity for disposal of Class A material, which has been the classification for all waste import cases today.”

    Another concern, as with all things nuclear, is safety – also known as the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) problem. But the truth is nuclear waste is routinely transported all over the country daily everyday. Since 1971, more than 20,000 shipments of spent fuel and high-level waste have been transported more than 18 million miles worldwide without incident. And that’s high-level waste. There’s much more when it comes to low level waste (both domestically and internationally) and the NRC has strict guidelines for regulatory requirements, licensing, and safety oversight.

    That being said, there are also concerns as to what the bill would do from a competitiveness perspective. This is becoming increasingly important as U.S. nuclear companies begin to position themselves to participate in the global nuclear renaissance that is unfolding.

    This is a lost business opportunity for America’s commercial nuclear industry. If companies can find safe and profitable disposition methods, those companies should be allowed to pursue those opportunities. It is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s job to ensure that those activities are done safely. Using ones resources to provide cost effective services is how competitive companies succeed. Forcing companies to use more expensive means essentially undermines their competitiveness and will result in lost opportunities. Furthermore, if space is a concern, that’s something for the importing company to address, not the government. Specific companies should have the freedom to use their resources, such as space availability, as they deem appropriate. Interestingly, the bill does not prevent the government from importing low-level waste, only the private sector.

    It could add a potential barrier to an emerging industry. Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI) remarked, “The U.S. is on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance … we risk never realizing our full potential on nuclear power.” The Congressman is right to be concerned. The legislation essentially precludes American companies from fully participating in a critical sector of the global nuclear industry. Denying a U.S. company from efficiently using its assets—in this case, a waste disposal facility—disadvantages U.S. companies that are competing with international firms.

    It could hamper the global nuclear energy market. At the end of September 2009, the Department of Energy announced, “U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Italian Minister for Economic Development Claudio Scajola today signed two important nuclear energy agreements that may lead to construction of new nuclear power plants and improved cooperation on advanced nuclear energy systems and fuel cycle technologies in both countries.” (More on these important agreements can be found here.) Banning imports on low-level waste would be a step backward after such an important step forward to building an international market for nuclear technologies.

    Congress should seek real solutions towards nuclear waste management reform and implement polices that keep U.S. markets open and encourage lower trade barriers around the world. While concerns over safety and space may be legitimate, this policy could have significant long-term implications for the future of nuclear power in America.

    Note: The first quote in this post was mistakenly attributed to Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) but it was Congressman Gordon.

    Posted in Energy [slideshow_deploy]

    3 Responses to Concerns Over Nuclear Waste Importation Should Not Lead to Ban

    1. Bobbie Jay says:

      Nuclear is a magnificent, proficient, efficient energy, that would take this country far in creating jobs, building the economy and sustaining freedom… only the ignorant would deny.

    2. Nicolai Alatzas says:

      Nuclear Power is a failed experiment that can not balance a budget no matter where you are. The costs of building a 50 mW facility costs billions of dollars. Parabolic Solar Collectors which are capable of producing power 24 hours a day have been built recently at a cost of $330 million for a 50 mW facility. At full power they are only capable of producing power for 7.5 hours into the evening but couple that with some wind resources and some of the new Flywheel technology being implemented in California and you have real no waste renewable energy for years to come. Government subsidies and lack of implementation of equitable and safe storage is among the problems with Nuclear Power.

      The waste issue has been placed on the American Tax payers as the responsible party for getting rid of the waste.

      "Recovery Act Funding Will Provide for Cleanup of Northern Idaho’s Silver Valley and Enable Another 100 People to be Hired; Silver Valley Among the 50 Most Polluted and Hazardous Waste Sites in the Country. "Northern Idaho's Silver Valley is among 50 of the nation's most-polluted and hazardous waste sites that were chosen Wednesday to receive a share of the federal stimulus money. Between $10 million and $25 million will be spent in the mining region to remove pollution from about 1,000 residential lawns contaminated by decades of mining and smelting, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said. About 100 more people will be hired to the existing work force of 125 to complete the work two years ahead of schedule. ‘The whole intent was to create jobs,’ said Dan Opalski at the EPA's regional headquarters in Seattle. ‘This will allow the state to supercharge that program for a couple of years.’ The new goal is to finish the project by 2013 instead of 2015, he said." [Associated Press, 4/15/09]

      Besides blocking other countries shipments of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipments and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues have nothing to do with producing Nuclear Energy.

      Until we have viable cost effective solutions to take care of waste we already have in America BLOCK all shipments of radioactive waste from coming in my borders.

    3. Pingback: Guest Blogger: Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN) Responds | Conservative Principles Now

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