A Place in the Heap

ON NOV. 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Bethesda, Md., published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM), requesting public comment on options to promote a more consistent framework for the disposal of low-activity radioactive waste (LARW).

LARWs are defined as radioactive wastes that may contain radionuclides in small enough concentrations to be managed fully protective of environmental and human health but do not require all of the radiation protection measures necessary to manage higher-activity radioactive material. As used in the ANPRM, “low activity” is a conceptual term that does not have a statutory or regulatory meaning.

Under the ANPRM, the EPA is considering whether LARWs and low-activity mixed wastes (LAMW), which are LARWs mixed with other hazardous wastes, can be managed safely in Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C landfills. Subtitle C includes the regulations for the management of hazardous waste facilities.

The agency also is assessing the suitability of other land disposal methods of LARWs and LAMWs in municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills regulated under Subtitle D. The EPA does not expect to allow these wastes to be disposed of in Subtitle D landfills, but it has not completely dismissed the idea.

The rationale for possibly including MSW landfills in the list of LARW and LAMW disposal facilities is rooted in federal regulations found in Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations part 258. The regulations require these landfills to have engineering features similar in many ways to features of landfills regulated under Subtitle C. Additionally, the existing Hazardous Waste Identification Rule (HWIR) allows the EPA to identify levels at which hazardous constituents pose a significantly low risk and therefore can be sent to RCRA Subtitle D landfills.

To further support the disposal of LARWs and LAMWs in MSW landfills, the EPA has noted that the NRC and the state of Michigan recently concluded that certain LARWs from the decommissioning of the Big Rock Point nuclear facility could be sent to a Subtitle D landfill. Other states also have determined that Subtitle D facilities may offer sufficient protection for certain types of radioactive materials.

Therefore, the EPA is requesting comments on three points: the suitability of Subtitle D landfills for low concentrations of radionuclides; under what conditions such disposal would be appropriate; and how comparable are Subtitle D and Subtitle C landfills in protecting human health and the environment.

The public comment period on the ANPRM is open through March 17, 2004. During the comment review period, the EPA will discuss the options available for the disposal of LARWs and LAMWs with the NRC to ensure compliance with both RCRA and the Atomic Energy Act, which governs NRC's actions. The NRC must agree to allow these materials into RCRA landfills regardless of the EPA's conclusions.

Anyone thinking of commenting on the ANPRM may consider reviewing the report titled “Detection and Response to Radioactive Materials at Municipal Solid Waste Landfills,” issued July 2001 by the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO), Washington, D.C .

ASTSWMO's Radiation Focus Group developed a problem statement regarding the detection and response to radioactive materials at MSW landfills. The concern was whether excluding all radioactive materials from these landfills created management practices involving detection that caused greater exposure to hazards than simply accepting and burying the material in the trash. The report is available online at www.astswmo.org.

Ed Repa is director of environmental programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association and can be reached at (800) 424-2869 or [email protected].