On March 11, 2011, an earthquake led to major problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. A 14-m high tsunami triggered by the earthquake disabled all AC power to Units 1, 2, and 3 of the Power Plant, and carried off fuel tanks for emergency diesel generators. Despite many efforts, cooling systems did not work and hydrogen explosions damaged the facilities, releasing a large amount of radioactive material into the environment.
As the popular saying goes, “a nuclear accident anywhere is an accident everywhere”. Detections of the Fukushima plume were made after the ﬁrst explosion at stations sited in Kamtchatka (Russia) and Takasaki (Japan) followed by measurements in USA, Canada, and on some Paciﬁc Islands.
This story goes from bad to worse, the government and plant managers along with a compliant media downplay the situation. Not to worry in one breath and then, well, some radioactive material is in the food, the ocean, the air, the groundwater and the damage is just a tad bit more than originally believed, but hey, its manageable.
Reminiscent of Vietnam and about the Agent Orange and Dioxin, which has been repeatedly shown to have caused much greater damage than initially reported, “Don’t worry it’s ONLY weed killer”.
During the first week of April 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, officials in the United States were scrambling to assess the legal and regulatory aspects of the crisis and how it might affect the United States.
Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other national organizations went round and round in circles trying to determine just how to handle the possible fallout.
The worry revolved around potentially contaminated material returning from Japan, which would have low levels of radioactive contamination which may be present on and in any materials coming to the U.S. from Japan, including people, commercial aircraft, machinery, parts and other goods in commerce.
The questions revolved around the disposal process.
- Will rad waste generated outside the hot, warm or plume zones be returned to Japan or treated as US generated waste?
- Can this waste be declared 91b, “national defense” waste or does it need to be treated as commercial low level radwaste?
- If commercial, would there be need to obtain an import permit from NRC?
- Can members access DOE disposal sites for disposal?
According to regulations, radiological contamination is the primary concern, and experts were worried about the radiation that had spread admittedly all the way to Tokyo, and the generation of hazardous waste resulting from decontamination activities as well.
How would officials be able to handle the radiological waste, without raising concern? Some suggested using the hazardous waste management program, instead of the radiological waste program, putting the NRC in control of management options, and using the EPA as a ‘secondary regulator’.
On April 7th, officials spent much of a teleconference describing the current radiological status on the ground in Japan at the time. One call participant summarized the radiological impact as follows;
“The nuclear accident in Japan has resulted in widespread deposition of radioactive contamination throughout the northern part of Japan, including the metropolitan Tokyo area. Surface contamination levels in this entire region would be required to be posted as radiological area if they were at a U.S. licensed facility or DOE site.
Any materials leaving Japan have the potential for low levels of radioactive contamination. Thus, the discussion about materials in DOD possession is indicative of similar materials that are entering commerce from Japan. In the DC and IPC meetings earlier this week, it was agreed that the limit of 4 Bq/cm2 for commerce was going to be acceptable and posed no health risk.”
There was some discussion during the teleconference about the Department of Defense’s normal procedures for disposal of low-level radioactive waste, and some participants questioned whether waste associated with Japan could simply be handled by the normal Department of Defense program.
Normal DOD processes deal with fairly limited amounts of radioactive material, in specific normal applications, handled by trained and qualified personnel. Japan related radioactivity will likely show up in a large number of different pieces of equipment, in a large number of places that typically don’t handle radioactive material, and be handled by people who normally have no involvement with the DOD radioactive waste program.
That is why it is the Department of Defense’s preference is for such material to be returned to Japan if possible. If this is not possible, it would be necessary to greatly expand the scope and resources of the DOD radioactive waste disposal program. It is important to note that the position taken by NRC on these questions related to a license to import or licensing for possession should apply across the board to all entities that import or receive material from the northern half of Japan and not just the Department of Defense.
Background radiation means radiation from cosmic sources; naturally occurring radioactive material, including radon (except as a decay product of source or special nuclear material); and global fallout as it exists in the environment from the testing of nuclear explosive devices or from past nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl that contribute to background radiation and are not under the control of the licensee,
“Background radiation” does not include radiation from source, byproduct, or special nuclear materials regulated by the Commission.
Regarding the question of NRC or Agreement State licensing, either for import or possession of radiologically contaminated material of Japan origin, the members were not able to ascertain a clear answer. During the call, there was an initial statement that NRC would not be licensing such material. Later on the discussion included reference to potential licensing. The regulatory provisions cited by members discussed the regulatory aspects of normal commerce in radioactive materials. It is not clear that these provisions would apply to widely scattered accident fallout that has placed low level contaminated material in the hands of many unregulated people and on material that will be entering commerce throughout the world.
Some staunch supporters of nuclear energy still cling to the worn-out religious foundation of nuclear energy, that it can be operated safely. Fukushima has exposed that it cannot, and even if it were possible, it would prove to be far too expensive, so the design and operation of commercial plant is “profit first and safety second”, no matter what they say in the open.
Low Level Waste Telecon April 7th, 2011 – Pages From C141839 02DX 2