Tough Regulations for Nuclear Cleanup

THE advertisement shows a dramatic snow-capped mountain set against a blue sky and reflected off a glassy lake. "To confirm the benefits of nuclear energy, we got an outside opinion," puns the United States Council for Energy Awareness, which represents the nuclear-power industry.

The ad, however, does not mention the industry's bid to leave radioactive land and buildings behind when a utility has finished operating a nuclear power plant.

The target of the industry's effort is a regulation under development at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In a moment of inadvertent bureaucratic candor, the NRC called the regulation ERORR - the Enhanced Rulemaking On Residual Radioactivity.

ERORR will affect not just nuclear power plants but also uranium-production facilities, storage areas for radioactive waste, and other sites - a total of 24,000 facilities in the US that are licensed to use or possess radioactive materials.

The NRC has presented four possible options for a clean-up standard:

* A risk limit, in which the NRC would set a threshold for risk for fatal cancers that licensees cannot exceed;

* A risk goal, in which licensees would be required to take all cost-effective measures to reach that goal;

* Best technology available;

* Back to background levels. This involves returning sites to their original condition before permitting uncontrolled use of land and buildings by the community.

The first three options would allow plant owners to perform less stringent cleanups. The nuclear power industry and other special interests will be lobbying the NRC hard for this approach: They have a lot to lose.

Estimates from the nuclear industry indicate it will cost at least $25 billion to handle the mess the nation's nuclear plants will leave behind. A lax rule from the NRC will save owners of the 112 nuclear reactors in 33 states a bundle in cleanup costs.

More important, a weak rule could permit land and buildings still contaminated with radioactivity to be cleared for public use, without restrictions, without monitoring. A radioactive building could be converted into a community center; "hot" land, the last chairman of the NRC suggested, could become a playground.

As a consequence, unknowing citizens would be exposed to higher levels of radiation than they ordinarily are. Recent evidence suggests that low levels of radiation are more dangerous than previously believed.

Meanwhile, the NRC has its own problems. The nation's radioactive-waste dumps are filling up, and efforts to build new ones are lagging behind schedule. A permissive cleanup standard would produce a smaller volume of radioactive waste, which would buy time for the government.

Almost 90 percent of Americans live in a state with a nuclear power plant, which one day will have to be dismantled and the site cleaned.

The NRC is now holding workshops across the country, open to anyone. Citizens need to make their views known to ensure that the NRC considers health and environmental concerns first and last.

The public deserves a tough standard to protect against exposure to radioactive contamination.

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