Senators review health department’s nuclear waste regulations

By Jennifer Coleman The Associated Press
Wednesday March 20, 2002

SACRAMENTO — Senators criticized Department of Health Services officials Tuesday for their recent regulation that allows the dumping of radioactive debris in regular landfills. 

The new regulations mirror federal guidelines for decommissioning nuclear sites and pose no threat to the public, said DHS Director Diana Bonta. 

Opponents of the new rules said the DHS didn’t anticipate what would happen to items with residual radioactivity after the nuclear sites were decommissioned and no longer regulated by DHS. 

Debris and buildings from those sites are now free to be deposited in neighborhood landfills, recycled into new consumer goods, or donated to schools or other organizations, said Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Urban Landfills. 

Romero has introduced a bill that would ban radioactive debris from regular landfills. 

Nearby residents already oppose attempts to expand landfills, Romero said. The process would be more difficult if “neighbors are saying, ’How can you assure us that you’re not going to dump low-level radioactive waste right next to my elementary school, or my football field, or put it into my child’s braces?”’ 

DHS discussed the state’s adoption of federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations at a public hearing in October 2000. High-level nuclear waste from reactor cores and items that are toxic or highly radioactive are sent to licensed facilities out of state. 

Bonta stressed that the new guidelines tighten cleanup standards for contaminated sites. Previously, the state required sites to eliminate radioactivity. The new standard releases sites if they produce less than 25 millirem of radioactivity per year. 

Still, the new level is like having four additional chest X-rays each year, said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. 

And, he said, while one load of debris could have a very low level of radioactivity, the cumulative effect of repeated loads of debris to a landfill could create a hazard. 

State landfill regulators were also unhappy with the regulations, said former state Sen. David Roberti, now a member of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. Once the site is decommissioned, the debris delivered to landfills isn’t tracked. 

“No matter what the situation is, the individuals who are taking in the waste should know it,” said Roberti. 

Despite DHS’ assurances that the risk from such low levels of radiation is low, Roberti said he was “skeptical, given how long workers at landfills may be exposed.” 

Lawmakers should address “whether low-level radioactive waste belongs in landfills to begin with,” Roberti said. “People in California view municipal landfills as garbage dumps, not toxic dumps.” 

Bonta said her department would work with Romero on her bill, but Bonta predicted this issue would lead to “disputes among good, honest people trying to protect the public.” 

A representative of industries that use nuclear science said he hoped that Romero would hold another hearing and invite representatives from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before moving forward with her bill. 

The bill would “expand the scope of radioactive materials that must go to a licensed facility, at the same time that we do not have a licensed facility in California,” said Alan Pasternak, technical director of the California Radioactive Materials Management Forum. 

Currently, nuclear sites in California can ship low-level waste to facilities in South Carolina or Utah, but the South Carolina facility is expected to stop accepting low-level nuclear waste in 2008, Pasternak said. That could put medical centers, universities and nuclear power plants in a bind if they can’t ship any of their waste, Pasternak said. 

“In a few years, Utah will have a monopoly on the disposal of radioactive waste,” he said. 


On the Net: 

Read the bill, SB1623, at www.senate.ca.gov