Part 2

of Low Level Radiation Campaign Briefing
on DETR consultation on reforming the
Radioactive Substances Act 1993
to conform with Council Directive 96/29/EURATOM.

Link to Part 1 of this Briefing


How could radioactive waste qualify for deregulation?

Since the Directive sets no limit on the total quantity of releases, the entire stock of waste held by nuclear site operators could, in principle, be released into the environment...
Nuclear site Clearance

The world is entering the era of nuclear decommissioning, and "Clearance" is, in essence, a "dilute and disperse" solution to the industry’s need to dispose of large amounts of contamination from hundreds of redundant nuclear facilities. OECD has quantified the metals alone to be dismantled from nuclear plant over the next 50 years at 30 million tonnes, valued at 10 -5 billion dollars. Concrete, rubble, and contaminated soils will generate greater masses of material. The cost of safe storage, even for those materials with little or no sale value, creates a large financial incentive for having them classified as "non-radioactive". Political difficulties associated with storing and disposing of radioactive substances are a further incentive.

There is some confusion or ambiguity in the text of the Directive about the levels of contamination at which materials may qualify to be cleared from nuclear sites and fed through to consumer products. The Directive is explicit only about radioisotope levels for undertakings which may be exempt from requirements to report or be authorised (i.e. Annex 1 Table A of the Directive); it is for member states to set Clearance Levels. The nuclear industry have certainly believed that the very high Table A Exemption levels were unconditional "free release" thresholds which would apply to Clearance of nuclear sites; they said with evident glee that this would be of considerable assistance to the growing decommissioning industry.

But following meetings with LLRC the European Commission published Guidance stating that the Exemption thresholds do not apply to nuclear site material. The Guidance recommends Clearance Levels which for most isotopes are somewhat more restrictive than the Exemption thresholds (EVs). These values are incorporated in the DETR consultation. LLRC’s response is that Clearance of nuclear facilities is unacceptable at any level, because of the gross amounts of radioactivity involved. It is only possible to make crude calculations, but NIREX’s own inventory of existing waste and waste arising over the next few decades is terrifying. Low and Intermediate level waste arising in the lifetime of the Millennium Baby will be equivalent to the releases from 127 Chernobyl accidents. Arisings expected in an unspecified period from 2060 onward are equivalent to a further 50 Chernobyls.

Our critics will object that there is no way ILW could be released, on the grounds that the EC Guidance recommends against allowing contaminated materials to be diluted to achieve Clearance Levels. But the following facts should be taken into account:

1)      operators in at least one Member State are already purchasing clean scrap metal, mixing it with contaminated metal, smelting it, and selling the product..

2)      The legal status of the “no dilution” recommendation appears to be weak. The EC has assured LLRC that the Courts would take its Guidance into account if an apparent breach were prosecuted, but as it is worded, the responsibility for preventing dilution rests on the government of the Member State, not on the contractor or operator. In view of the incentives decommissioning contractors will have for minimising volumes of waste and in view of the nuclear industry’s poor reputation in handling it, it is worrying that the DETR consultation contains no reference to banning dilution. It must be explicitly banned in law.

3)      The Directive and the DETR are silent about the concept of Clearing metals "melted under licence" - that is, melted on licensed sites before Clearance. This is discussed in the background documentation in terms of its possible advantages, which include the tendency of some nuclides to be concentrated in the smelter slag or in the dust rather than in the metal. Slag and dust have industrial uses, including soil conditioners, fertilisers, building materials, and surfaces for roads and all weather football pitches. Thus the radioactive content of highly contaminated metals could be widely dispersed in metal products, consumer products of all kinds, in parks, fields, gardens and food, in playgrounds and carparks. More radioactivity will be vented to atmosphere from the smelter.
BNFL have already decommissioned the gaseous diffusion plant at Capenhurst and consider that 97.3% of the materials (180,000 tonnes in all) will qualify for free release. Thousands of tonnes of aluminium have already been melted and sold on open markets, and more ingots remain on site, presumably awaiting sale.
Since the Directive imposes no limits on the total quantity of releases, the entire stock of waste held by the nuclear site operators could, in principle, be released into the environment by this route.

It may be valid to reuse contaminated metal within the industry, but even in this case we demand that all the products of melting metals under licence must remain under regulatory control, because of the large amounts of activity involved. They must never be eligible for Clearance, and RSA must include such a provision.

We recommend that no contaminated materials should be Cleared from licensed sites, because of the large amounts of radioactivity involved.

We recommend that if any Clearance of contaminated materials were to be permitted the "no dilution" provision should be incorporated explicitly in law.


Exemption

The Directive’s weak drafting originally gave LLRC a second cause for concern: some undertakings using radioactivity are to be allowed Exemption from authorisation and reporting requirements. This is meant to relieve small business, hospitals, laboratories etc. from burdensome regulation.
Exemption is conditional on amazingly high values for concentrations of radioactivity, with no limit on the amount of radioactivity an undertaking may hold as long as it is below the concentration threshold. The original assumption behind the Exemption concept and the setting of the threshold values was that the public would be exposed to the radioactivity in Exempt undertakings, including exposures from materials that had been disposed of. The dominant contamination route was assumed to be inadvertent ingestion and inhalation from landfills. For this reason Exemption was meant only for small quantities of material - of the order of one tonne at most. However, the Directive set no limits and also remained silent on the question of disposal from Exempt undertakings. It thus created a loophole for the potential unauthorised, unrecorded dumping of unknowable amounts of radioactive waste. This was the reason for our objection to the Exemption principle. We have now withdrawn our objections because Environment Minister Michael Meacher has assured us that disposal from Exempt undertakings will continue to be regulated under RSA 93. While accepting Mr Meacher's good faith -
we recommend that RSA should explicitly state that it applies to disposal of radioactivity on any scale.

This would place a duty even on people disposing of old smoke alarms and tritium-filled emergency signs; a solution can be seen in the precedent of local authorities providing de-gassing for refrigerators, after freons had been found to be an ozone depleting hazard.

Potential loopholes remain, however. The revised Ionising Radiation Regulations (now at an advanced stage) not only copies the Directive’s lack of limits, but also specifically abandons the idea of accounting for substances which are below the Exemption concentrations even while they are still inside the regulated nuclear sites where they are created. One of the weaknesses of the present DETR consultation is that it does not propose any measure to limit or record the gross amount of radioactivity that can be disposed of from an Exempt undertaking.
This must be rectified in the new round of consultation.


What can we regard as effectively non-radioactive?
Setting the boundary with SoLA (Substances of Low Activity) orders

An important aspect of the consultation is the government’s proposal to retain the Substances of Low Activity (SoLA) system for setting a boundary between material which is so radioactive that it must be regarded as needing regulation and material which is beneath regulatory concern. DETR is minded to retain the existing system intact, including the long-standing value of 0.4 Becquerels per gramme. In principle this is good.

We recommend keeping SoLA, with some reservations.

1)      The big problem with the DETR proposal is that they are using SoLA to fudge the two concepts of Exemption and Clearance, because they propose one set of concentration thresholds for free release of any amount of radioactivity. This is unacceptable.
We recommend that SoLA values must not be applied to large quantities from Clearance of nuclear licensed sites.

2)      DETR is also considering the possibility of changing from the old non isotope specific 0.4 Bq/g value to a range of values between 0.1Bq/g and 10 Bq/g. In view of the scientific dispute about the degree and mechanisms of health hazard it is unacceptable to relax existing standards.
We recommend that 0.4Bq/g should remain (pending relevant research) as a maximum SoLA value.

3)       DETR propose allocating isotopes to three groups according to the energy of their radioactive decays. The problem is that this takes account only of the physical characteristics of the isotopes, ignoring biological behaviour and, in particular, the increased chance of genetic damage caused by overlapping decays from sequential emitters like Strontium-90 and by hot particles which deliver large chronic doses to very localised volumes of tissue.
We recommend that there should be a fourth group consisting of the "second event" isotopes (i.e. those marked with "+" in Table A of Annex 1 of the Directive) for which the SoLA value should be 0.001 Bq/g, on account of the sequential decay pathway of local dose amplification.

4)      For the same reason giving SoLA values as averages is inadequate.

We recommend that there must be a measure to prevent the release of hot particles giving more than 2 decays of 50 KeV or more per 10 hours.

5)      The Directive and the DETR consultation are silent on the issue of diluting radioactive substances to achieve SoLA values for free release. Mr Meacher has assured LLRC that this will not be possible.

We recommend that dilution must be explicitly banned in RSA's SoLA provisions.
We recommend adoption of a similar provision to prevent dilution to achieve the status of Very Low Level Waste (VLLW)


Summary of recommendations

*      SoLA values not to be applied to Clearance of nuclear licensed sites.
*      disposal from Exempt undertakings to continue to be regulated under RSA 93
*      no dilution of radioactive substances to achieve the SoLA values and VLLW status
*      a fourth group of radioisotopes consisting of the "second event" isotopes (i.e. those marked with "+" in Table A of Annex 1 of the Directive) for which the SoLA value should be 0.001 Bq/g
*      a measure to prevent the release of hot particles under SoLA.
*      measures to limit and record the gross amount of radioactivity that can be disposed of from an Exempt undertaking
*      no contaminated materials to be Cleared from nuclear licensed sites
*      if Clearance were to be allowed, estimates must be made of the quantity of radioactivity expected to be eligible for Clearance, and of the collective dose to the public over the next 500 years and the yield of serious and fatal health conditions consequent on those doses.
*      an explicit measure to ensure that contaminated material cannot be diluted with clean material in order to achieve Clearance Levels
*      no metals melted under licence to be released from regulatory control, nor any of the slags and dusts from such smelting.


What is the Department of Health doing?
Economising with the truth

At our suggestion campaigners have asked the Secretary of State for Health why NRPB use studies of Hiroshima victims to assess risks from internal radiation from man-made isotopes, although those studies are only relevant to external radiation. A recent reply from Tessa Jowell MP says that NRPB do not base their assessment ... solely on the data obtained from Japanese A bomb survivors, but use data from a variety of sources.
To find out the detail the inquirer is directed to write to NRPB. Obviously Ms Jowell hopes we will be too bored to bother.

If NRPB had data on internal irradiation and if it showed that we were mistaken in our belief that there is a gap in scientific knowledge in this area she would have spelled it out.
The fact is that the Hiroshima data are crucial (the main source of information and of particular value according to NRPB.) Most of the other studies they use are of other relatively high dose external gamma exposures. Consider NRPB’s standard work on low dose risks [NRPB 1995]. This is an updated comprehensive review of the data available for assessing risk ... [with] particular emphasis on ... low doses and low dose rates. It refers to only two studies which could include internal radiation - both are concerned with bomb-test fallout, and both show an excess risk larger than predicted by their standard model. One of these studies, which looked at leukaemia in children in Nordic populations at the time of nuclear weapons tests [Darby 1992], is also mentioned in Ms Jowell’s letter: Misreferencing the paper so that if you look on the British Medical Journal’s website you will not find it, Ms Jowell says it showed no evidence of a link between childhood leukaemia and test fallout. The truth of this particular study is that it is so badly conducted that it is a standing joke among epidemiologists, and has been used in lecture-rooms as a classic example of bad design. Its flaw is that the base population was changed halfway through the study period. Even so, it did show an effect, as NRPB admits (p.23). Tessa Jowell should be pressed to explain her comments on the Nordic leukaemia study.

When pressed on the lack of information on internal radiation NRPB refer to one or two small studies of people injected with natural isotopes (thorium and radium). There is no reason to expect them to be relevant to the effects of long term internal contamination with substances which did not exist until 50 years ago. Studies with dogs have shown a distinct difference in the life shortening effects of (natural) radium compared with (man-made) plutonium. Research on the effects of internal contamination with other man-made isotopes is in its infancy. Tessa Jowell claims in her letter and in replies to Parliamentary questions that plenty is being done, listing a number of isotopes under investigation. But are the investigations she refers to capable of revealing the truth about genetic effects, or are they still looking matters like tissue localisation and “absorbed dose”? We don’t know, because the DoH refuses to give detail of the protocols. They have also failed to tell us what radiation studies the UK is proposing for inclusion in the forthcoming 5th Framework Programme of EU funded research.

These are public health issues of massive importance; the public is paying for research which may or may not be relevant, and the DoH has a role in co-ordinating it. The public is surely entitled to know in detail what is being done. Mr Dobson and Ms Jowell must provide that detail.

Our earlier briefings have contained evidence that the official model of internal hazard is wrong. LLRC’s website has a far larger compendium at www.llrc.org/compendium.htm.


This June 1999 Briefing ends with an update on evidence of health effects from low levels of radioactive contamination. Click here

Back to Part 1 of this Briefing


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