NASHVILLE, TENN — Despite the efforts of two Tennessee state senators to halt or at least curtail the amount of nuclear waste in landfills, the State Senate voted Monday to continue to permit the dumping of radioactive waste in four Tennessee landfills.
Senator Beverly Marrero, a Democratic senator from Memphis, told colleagues on the Senate Environment, Conservation & Tourism Committee that she remains concerned about the volume of radioactive waste pouring into the state for processing and burial. She introduced a bill to stop or at least restrict the amount of the waste that four Tennessee landfills are authorized to receive under the “Bulk Survey for Release” regulatory program – the only one of its kind in the nation.
While other states permit the dumping of low-level radioactive waste in landfills, Tennessee streamlined the process in the 1990s, making it easier for corporations to dump nuclear waste on its soil. Companies that process the waste no longer have to apply and wait for government approval to dump each individual shipment of the into one of the four state-approved landfills because the Bulk Survey for Release program allows them to combine waste and operate under a single license. The Republican majority voted against the bill.
One of the concessions Tennessee made to expedite the dumping of radioactive waste was to lower the legal maximum radioactivity of the waste from the 5-millirem limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to 1 millirem. According to Alan Leiserson, legal services director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, that makes the waste’s radioactivity “extremely low level.”
But Don Safer, Tennessee Environmental Council board chairman, said that the state’s lax rules allow waste processors to self regulate. Without inspection and monitoring, he said, the state is left to trust the waste processors to abide by radiation limits.
This has made Tennessee very attractive to companies that process nuclear waste. Safer said that the Bulk for Survey Release program “caused Tennessee to be the destination for as much as three quarters of the low-level radioactive waste from the United States, much of it from out of the state,” Safer said.
According to the Tennessee Environmental Council, the state “has quietly become the primary destination for low-level radioactive nuclear waste processing from all over the United States and increasingly, foreign countries.”
Forty-nine million pounds of radioactive waste, much of it from out of state, were dumped into five Tennessee municipal landfills under this program from 2004 through 2009.
In 2005, a fifth landfill in Rutherford County received 10 million pounds of waste from a decommissioned nuclear reactor in Michigan. Public outrage over the deposit resulted in that dump being closed to radioactive waste.