Radioactive landfills

Little-noticed state rule change raises the specter of nuclear waste in our local dumps

Illustration By Conrad Garcia

You might be surprised to learn that your neighborhood garbage dump contains nuclear waste. You would probably be even more surprised to learn that the athletic field of the neighborhood high school was radioactive, or that the thrift store around the block sold radioactive goods.

But that may be allowed—and may already be happening—under rules created by the California Department of Health Services.

The agency came under fire last week from legislators and environmental groups for quietly putting in place a rule that allows dumping of low-level nuclear waste in local landfills and other sites not licensed to receive radioactive materials.

The regulation changes the clean-up standards for decommissioned nuclear facilities, which include thousands of sites that use radioactive materials, from medical facilities to university laboratories to shuttered nuclear power plants.

DHS officials say the new rule will make the public safer, and that the waste in question does not contain enough radioactivity to threaten human health. But it is new interpretations of what’s considered “safe” that is causing the uproar.

Critics say the rule is a dangerous deregulation of nuclear waste that would unknowingly expose citizens to radiation in ways that they would never suspect.

Some of the waste could end up in local landfills, although most landfill operators are not equipped to handle radioactive materials. And, in theory at least, nuclear waste could also end up in the most unlikely places.

Those trying to stop DHS paint a nightmarish picture of radioactivity seeping into all facets of everyday life. Contaminated dirt could end up being used as fill for your local high-school football field. Or discarded radioactive metal could be sent to metal recyclers and ultimately be used to fashion new consumer goods: belt buckles, spoons, even children’s braces.

“Maybe we should just start issuing dosimeters [machines used to gauge radioactivity] to children along with their social security numbers,” said Bernice Kring, an activist with the Sacramento anti-nuclear group Grandmothers for Peace.

On its surface, the new DHS rule imposes stricter clean-up requirements on decommissioned nuclear facilities. Until now, operators of such facilities had to remove material that exceeds 100 millirems from the property and send it to a licensed radioactive waste facility before being released from DHS regulation.

The new rule brings the level down to 25 millirems, a level considered “clean” by DHS and by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But DHS officials are now saying that anything under that threshold can be landfilled, whereas before, it was assumed that materials containing any measurable radioactivity would still be sent to a low-level radioactive waste facility. There are only two such sites in the nation, one in South Carolina, the other in Utah.

DHS scientist Kevin Reilly says the average person gets far more than a 25 millirem dose in naturally occurring “background” radiation every year—anywhere from 300 to 500 millirems depending on where you live.

“There is no scientific evidence that these doses pose a risk to human health,” said Reilly.

But there is much disagreement over whether even doses as low as 25 millirems are safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t think so and has recommended that the limit be lowered. Some scientists say a person who receives that dose annually over a lifetime stands a 1 in 1,000 chance of developing a fatal cancer.

DHS officials were raked over the coals last week during a hearing held by state Senator Gloria Romero, who has introduced legislation to reverse the new rule and to expressly prohibit disposal of radioactive waste at any site other than a licensed radioactive waste facility.

“I can not legally throw a battery in a landfill. I can’t dump a television in a landfill or certain household chemicals,” Romero noted. “How am I supposed to explain to families in my district that a closed-down nuclear site can dump radioactive waste in their community?”

Former Senator David Roberti, who serves on the state Integrated Waste Management Board, said he was shocked by the new rule.

“The citizens of California view landfills as garbage dumps, not toxic dumps. These facilities were not designed to accept radioactive waste,” said Roberti, noting that many landfills have no way to screen for radioactivity, no way to monitor the groundwater under landfills for radioactive contamination and no procedures in place for assuring that workers handle radioactive materials safely.

Roberti also said that the Waste Board was never consulted about how the new rule would impact landfills. “It’s outrageous to me that one agency would pass a regulation without advising another agency that would be affected,” said Roberti.

DHS officials say they followed the rules regarding public notification of the rulemaking, but many Capitol watchers said the notice was slipshod at best.

“There seemed to be some conscious effort to keep it quiet,” said Mark Murray with the Californians Against Waste. “You can surmise that they knew it would be controversial and they tried to slip it under the radar.”

The nuclear industry may stand to save quite a bit of money because of the new regulation. Shipping radioactive waste to facilities in South Carolina or Utah can cost anywhere from $100 to $500 per cubic foot. Tipping fees at a regular landfill only run about $30 to $50 a ton.

Environmentalists and state legislators jumped on the new DHS regulation because they perceived it as allowing the release of low level radioactive materials into the public in a way that had never been allowed before.

In defense of the new rule, DHS officials say that it doesn’t say anything about what happens to materials from decommissioned sites. It simply releases facilities from DHS regulation once a site has been cleaned up to a certain level. The old standard of 100 millirems or less, and an even looser 500 millirem standard that was in place until 1994, would have allowed landfilling of much more radioactive material in the past.

“The important thing to remember,” said DHS spokesperson Lea Brooks, “is that we went from 500 to 100 to 25. So, I don’t understand. Are they not happy about the dose being reduced? Do they want to go back to 100?”

But that argument has one disturbing implication. Did radioactive waste at those higher doses actually find its way into landfills or other unlicensed sites in the past, or is the current DHS interpretation of the rules actually a break with past policy?

If unregulated dumping has been going on all along, then the amount of radioactive waste that has already been released into the public, its level of radioactivity, and indeed any harm that has been done to human health is completely unknown at this point. That scares Bill Magavern, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club.

“This is one of the very disturbing things that has emerged,” said Magavern. “We don’t know that they have allowed dumping at those high levels. But if they have, they need to tell us what has been dumped and where it has been dumped, because that is very dangerous.”

Indeed, Senator Romero has demanded that DHS make some accounting for where contaminated materials from previously decommissioned sites have gone.

“If nuclear waste has been going out there, we need to know about it,” said Romero, whose Los Angeles district hosts the state’s largest active landfill.

Dan Hirsch, with the nuclear policy group Committee to Bridge the Gap, says DHS officials are trying to make the new rule seem more palatable by raising the notion that old rules allowed dumping of even higher doses of radioactivity.

Allowing unregulated dumping of radioactive waste at those doses would have been tremendously irresponsible, said Hirsch. At 500 millirems, he said, 1 in every 60 people would develop a fatal cancer. At the 100 millirem dose, a person exposed over their lifetime stands a 1 in 268 chance of developing a fatal cancer.

“So hopefully,” said Hirsch, “they’re lying.”