Fighting Deregulation of Radioactive Waste

THE WARD VALLEY CONTROVERSY DEMONSTRATED how weak were the regulations for licensed radioactive waste disposal facilities. But as minimal as were those safety requirements, the nuclear industry and its captive regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), every few years put forth proposals to deregulate a large portion of the radioactive waste stream, which would allow such wastes to be disposed of in places neither licensed nor designed to safely handle them. Those proposals have beaten back, time and time again, with leadership by Diane D’Arrigo of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), only to re-emerge.

CBG disclosed that radioactive metals from the Santa Susana nuclear site had been sent to regular metal recyclers, where they got melted down into the consumer metal supply. We helped press the Department of Energy (DOE) to put in place a moratorium on recycling radioactive metals from the DOE nuclear complex. We disclosed that the Santa Susana site had sent radioactive waste to three regular local garbage dumps, designed for rotting cabbages, not plutonium. This led to legislation banning the practice statewide, which passed the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Davis. However, in vetoing it, he put in place a moratorium on such disposal in the state’s municipal landfills that remains in place to this day.

Attorney Larry Silver, representing CBG, filed suit against the California Department of Health Services when it adopted regulations that would deregulate substantial amounts of radioactive wastes. We won and that victory remains in place. CBG’s then-Sacramento Director and decades-long ally, Bill Magavern, played significant roles in these battles. Bill went on to head Sierra Club California and is now Sacramento Director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

Radioactive waste generators continued to try to send their wastes to places not licensed or designed for radioactive waste, for example the dumpsites at Kettleman Hills and Buttonwillow in California’s Central Valley, two low-income, farmworker, primarily Hispanic communities. Dan Hirsch served as the expert witness for Padres Hacia Una Vida Mejor in their Tanner Act Environmental Justice proceeding to stop the radioactive waste dumping in Buttonwillow; his testimony was instrumental in their victory on that issue.

However, there continues to be pressure for such deregulation. In a detailed study by Dan Hirsch and Ethan Miske issued by CBG, it was revealed that the Boeing Company had been disposing of radioactive waste in sites not licensed for it and at recyclers. With Consumer Watchdog, the Southern California Federation of Scientists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, we filed suit against the state toxics agency to stop it. Attorneys Beverly Grossman Palmer, Michael Strumwasser, and Andrea Ordin have to date successfully blocked approvals of any further such disposals of radioactive debris from Boeing buildings; the case is on appeal.

Early in 2020, in the midst of the Covid- 19 pandemic, the NRC quietly proposed to deregulate virtually the entire radioactive waste stream from nuclear reactors except the spent fuel, allowing the waste to go to regular municipal garbage dumps, or even vacant lots near schools. CBG, working closely with NIRS, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, has marshaled national opposition to this dramatically irresponsible proposal. In face of this significant opposition, the NRC withdrew its proposal in December 2020.