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If It's 'Hot,' It's Not Just Trash

January 22, 2002

Californians can't put their old paint cans or used motor oil out for the trash collectors because municipal landfills consider these items to be hazardous waste and are barred by law from accepting them. So how is it that since November state regulations have allowed the operators of mothballed nuclear power plants to send mildly radioactive dirt, concrete and parts of abandoned buildings to city dumps?

At least half a dozen power plants and laboratory sites will be taken out of service in the coming years. Once they are cleaned up and the radioactivity drops to legally safe levels, the sites can be used for new purposes, possibly including housing or parks.

But how safe is safe? Federal rules adopted in 1997 set the cleanup standard for decommissioned facilities as 25 millirems annually--a measure of the intensity of the radiation emitted by dirt, buildings and other materials on a site. That's roughly equal to getting 21/2 chest X-rays every year. Once a site is cleaned up and radioactivity drops to 25 millirems, it can be declared safe for other uses.

Officials from the California health department adopted that same standard late last year. Their action cleared the way for hauling debris and dirt from cleaned sites to city dumps, just as though it were household trash. No need to notify the neighbors or take special precautions while transporting this material, as is required for radioactive waste.

But this stuff is not just household trash. State officials tried, over several years, to license and construct a repository specifically for low-level radioactive waste at Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert. That facility, intended to receive hotter material from still-operating nuclear plants, was to emit less than 1/10th the 25-millirem standard the state will allow at decommissioned sites--and in their debris.

The state ultimately abandoned the Ward Valley project because of concerns about the dump's safety, specifically that radioactivity could migrate into underground water supplies, and California continues to ship low-level waste to special facilities in Utah and South Carolina. Why not keep using them?

Most city landfills lack the monitoring equipment to make sure that radioactivity in incoming loads is within the legal limit. Municipal landfills also have many fewer design safety features than Ward Valley would have had to prevent radiation from leaching off-site.

The governor and Legislature need to step in. Gov. Gray Davis should bar shipments of radioactive material to municipal landfills, even if it meets current federal and state standards as "clean." A group of legislators plans to hold hearings next month to reexamine those standards and safety at landfills. California's 175 municipal dumps should not become de facto radioactive waste sites.

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