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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Radioactive Dumping

Air Date: Week of

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Slightly radioactive garbage is building up at hundreds of old reactor sites and even not-so-old biotechnology companies. In California, the state wants the garbage to go to regular landfills, and some of it already has. Robin White reports.


CURWOOD: The word "radiation" can conjure images that range from ominous mushroom clouds to the three-eyed fish on "The Simpsons." In fact, radiation is all around us all the time. With that idea as justification, California has been letting the U.S. Department of Energy and biotech firms send mildly radioactive trash to local landfills and metal recyclers.
A group of concerned citizens is suing to stop this practice. Robin White has the story.

WHITE: Nuclear policy activist Dan Hirsch has been watchdogging a former nuclear weapons plant in Ventura County, California for more than two decades. He’s on an oversight committee for the Rocketdyne site at Santa Susana. The reactor partially melted down in 1959, and the Department of Energy has been trying to clean it up.

In January 2000, Hirsch went along with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors to measure radioactivity in some of the buildings.

HIRCSH: When we got there, we discovered that the Department of Energy had torn down half of the buildings before EPA could monitor them. EPA was furious. Where did the buildings go? They looked like idiots because they were standing with a geiger counter and the wind blowing through their hair because there was no wall and no ceiling to the buildings. I was interested, where did this stuff go?


CORCORAN: Down in here. Way down, 180 feet, 200 feet.

WHITE: Doug Corcoran manages the Bradley Landfill in the North San Fernando Valley. He shows the spot where some of the radioactive concrete went. He said they used it to line the landfill.

CORCORAN: And really, the material in terms of how much is at the bottom to build that bottom layer, it’s a very, very small amount in comparison to everything that’s down there, you know.

WHITE: But records unearthed by Hirsch show that since 1996 perhaps six thousand tons of Rocket dyne concrete has come here and been ground up. Waste Management operates the landfill which towers over the neighborhood. They have an investment in downplaying the incident. They already have problems with neighbors such as Ann Ziliak who objects to the smell and the dust.

ZILIAK: What happens is when they dump the trash, they take a tractor and they move over and over the dirt. Now, if they used the dirt that contained any radiation, that’s airborne. What happens when it’s airborne? We don’t know that. What happens if it goes in your lungs? It’s never coming out again.

WHITE: Ziliak spends much of her day making calls and going to meetings for LASER, Landfill Alternatives to Save Environmental Resources. A big issue for the San Fernando group is that no one can tell them how the radioactive dumping could affect their health.

ZILIAK: They’re exchanging our lives for some cost-ratio. And I think that’s crazy.

WHITE: Cost is the issue. Around the country Cold War weapons and nuclear plants are being dismantled, and their owners need places to put the slightly contaminated debris. Sending it to a licensed radioactive dump costs 40 times more than what it costs to send to the local landfill. Dan Hirsch says the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission face tremendous pressure to release it.

HIRSCH: The nuclear industry created the contamination. But rather than spending the money to clean it up, they externalized the cost by dumping that risk on innocent members of the public.

WHITE: But Ray Golden of Southern California Edison says, not so. His utility is de-commissioning one of the San Onofre nuclear reactors in north San Diego County, and is using guidelines set by the NRC.

GOLDEN: When we generate low-level radioactive waste, if we can measure radiation being emitted from that material, whether it’s soil, concrete, steel, whatever it is, we will ship that to a licensed disposal site. And, there are two sites that we use. One is located in Clive, Utah, and one is located in Barnwell, South Carolina.

WHITE: And that’s a much stricter standard than California or the Department of Energy has been using. In fact, California, usually known for its tight environmental controls, last year made it easier to ship slightly radioactive material to landfills and recyclers.

Hirsch found that radioactive material from the Rocketdyne weapons plant, in fact, wound up in a scrap recycler in San Pedro. Hugo Neu Proler ships metal overseas where it’s smelted and turned into consumer products such as bed frames, sauce pans and silverware. And, like some metal recyclers, Hugo Neu Proler has radiation detectors.


WHITE: A constant stream of trucks passes through them before entering the scrap yard. Laura Hennen’s in charge of environmental safety and she shows what happens when something noticeably radioactive comes through the gate. She triggers the alarm with a small piece of cesium 137 in a zip lock bag.

HENNEN: I’m going to hold up this truck for a minute. [ALARM GOES OFF] That alarms the driver, but then the guys that bring the scale, it rings real loud up there.

WHITE: Hennen says the detectors at Hugo Neu Proler go off about three times a month. Sometimes, false alarms caused by a truck driver’s undergoing radiation therapy. But more serious are industrial gauges containing various radioactive elements. Hennen says when one of these gets melted in a steel mill, it costs millions of dollars to clean it up.

From 1983 to 1996, there were 25 confirmed meltings of radioactive metal in the U.S. In one famous case, radioactive table legs were shipped all over the U.S. and Canada from a Mexican smelter. But the scrap from the Rocketdyne weapon site was contaminated with radioactivity at a level so low manager Jeff Neu says he doesn’t consider it radioactive.

NEU: It may have been sent here but it was not radioactive when it was sent here because we would definitely have detected it at the gate. And as a backup to that, believe me, if anything got overseas and was radioactive, we would have heard about it. And we’ve never had anything come back and said that it was radioactive from overseas.

WHITE: But that doesn’t mean the scrap wasn’t radioactive at a level that still has some people concerned. New York, Massachusetts and Maine have much tighter restrictions than California. So does the EPA. And after Hugo Neu Proler received its radioactive scrap, the Clinton Energy Department banned radioactive metal recycling.

Now, the Bush administration wants to lift the ban. The Energy Department failed to make a spokesperson available for this story. But Kevin Reilly of California’s Health Services Department defends the state’s new rules.

REILLY: Life really evolved in a world where radiation exposure occurs every day. The reason life continued on—existed--is because we are able to deal with the sorts of radiation we get every day. There are mechanisms within the cells to remedy or fix the damage that’s done.

WHITE: Reilly says background levels of radiation can vary hugely from place to place. For instance, background in San Pedro is 45 millirems per year, but in Phoenix it’s five times that. Dan Hirsch says just because there’s natural radiation, that doesn’t mean we should add to it.

HIRSCH: Less radiation produces a smaller risk of cancer, greater radiation produces a higher level. By DHS’s own estimate, the Health Department’s own estimate, the 25 millirem standard will kill one in every thousand people exposed.

WHITE: But, Reilly says the DHS never said that. And Kenneth Mossman, a health physicist from Arizona State University, says the one in one thousand figure is extrapolated from the very high dose of radiation delivered by the attack on Hiroshima. Mossman says the figures are based on bad science.

MOSSMAN: The region where we know that health risks exist as a result of radiation exposure is at ten thousand millirem and higher. And, in fact, in adult populations it’s really closer to about twenty thousand millirem and higher. And that’s in a single dose.

At the doses that we’re talking about, such as twenty-five millirem, we’re in a region where either the risk of radiation health effects is zero, or it’s so small, we can’t measure it.

WHITE: Activists say until there’s scientific agreement, the state and federal government shouldn’t sign off on contaminated trash. And a judge has ordered California to review its twenty-five millirem rule. The traditional stakeholders in this are the nuclear power and weapons industries, but there’s a new player, biotechnology, which uses radioactive isotopes to track gene splicing. It, too, has increasing stockpiles of radioactive trash on site, in some cases, out back in storage containers.

Therese Ghio is the president of the California Radioactive Materials Forum.

GHIO: We’re in the research business. We don’t want to be in the waste storage business. It’s very impractical to be storing the material all over.

WHITE: Ghio says it might take an accident with radioactive material to finally arrive at a rational policy for its disposal. For Living on Earth, I’m Robin White in San Francisco.

[MUSIC: Pell Mell, "Anna Karina," INTERSTATE (Geffen Records, 1995)]



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