Clearing the under radioactive waste mountain

Clearing the under radioactive waste mountain
under the “Basic Standards Directive”

"Clearance" of contaminated materials from nuclear licensed sites is not the same issue as Exemption. "Exemption" means freedom from having to be regulated on the grounds that the undertaking concerned handles only small amounts or low concentrations of radioactivity. "Clearance" means releasing materials from undertakings which are inside the regulatory system, on the grounds that the materials are below certain thresholds, which are expressed in Becquerels per Kilogramme.

Once released, the materials will be regarded as "clean" and will not be subject to any monitoring or tracking.

There is a large range of routes for radioactivity to be dispersed into the environment. [see briefings on this site]

The situation even in the UK remains complex and unclear. In April 2000 Michael Meacher announced at a meeting that a Green Paper on radwaste was forthcoming. He told LLRC's representative that it would not include Clearance and that a separate announcement would appear soon.

There has been no announcement, but DETR has told us that they regard the 400 Bq/Kg threshold as a Clearance Level under the SoLA Exemption Order [SoLA]. They have not added the word "Clearance" to UK law or regulation; it does not appear in any Directions to the Environment Agency (the body responsible for ensuring that the UK complies with the Directive). They're just slipping the concept of Clearance into effect without regard for all the objections they received during the Consultation, and using a Statutory Instrument [i.e. SoLA] which was never intended to encompass the release of large amounts of material.

Our position -- There should be no Clearance of contaminated materials even at 400 Bq/Kg.
It is unjustified because of the sheer quantity of radioactive atoms contained on nuclear sites in soils, gravels, sludge, concrete, rubble, metals and so on and on and on. No- one knows how much is there [a recent New Scientist article 1 , based on a confidential BNFL report, reveals for example, that British nuclear weapons factories may be much more contaminated than previously thought.] Whatever - it's millions and millions of tons of stuff, so even if it's "only" 400 Bq/kg that would mean a lot of radioactivity released into the environment.
Or it may be left on site when the site is delicensed.
UK nukes are working to a target of 400 Bq/kg for decontaminating land BUT are reinterpreting it as 400 Bq/kg in addition to what's there as background and they are interpreting historical discharges and contamination as background. At Harwell, for example, they find 700 Bq/Kg of man made or anthropogenic radioactivity on the Southern Storage Area (destined to be a playing field with unrestricted public access) so their decontamination target is 1100 Bq/ Kg.
This is a scam which needs to be stamped on. The European Commission has said (in a letter to Caroline Lucas MEP, October 2000) that:

The Directive did not envisage the use of the Clearance concept to the release of contaminated land (or as a target for decontaminating land).
We are working on this.

Back to Clearance in the UK. If they are going to do it we have to think about metals melted under licence -- will they ever be eligible for Clearance?
This is a very complex issue, and raises questions about the status and interpretation of European Commission Technical Guidance. Guidance 2 on Clearing metals says that the authorities should ensure that only unmelted scrap is Cleared;-

the Clearance Levels for scrap are not appropriate for metal released after being melted.
The stated logic of this is that
the clearance criteria for scrap metal assume that only a fraction of the scrap in the furnace comes from nuclear sites, while ingots produced in a licensed smelter [like the one BNFL installed while they were decommissioning the gaseous diffusion plant at Capenhurst] are made from 100% radioactive scrap.
Chris Mullin [a junior minister at DETR] has written 4 that no metals have been melted under licence in the UK. This is not true; BNFL melted thousands of tonnes while they were dismantling Capenhurst, still under licence. DETR looked into this at our request, and reported back to us that the metal had been decontaminated to below 400 Bq/ Kg before melting. This isn't true either. Their decontamination techniques can't reach all the holes and corners, so they decontaminated what they could, and melted the lot. Some of the resulting ingots were below 400 Bq/ Kg and some were above. They classified those below as "de minimis" and sold them as clean metal; they're stuck with the others and they'll have to go to Drigg. What BNFL did was contrary to the EC Guidance. The suck it and see approach they adopted is a species of dilution and a means of clearing as much radioactivity as possible. This is what we have said all along.

What is the status of the Guidance?

The European Commission told us a couple of years ago that it's as good as binding on member states. They carefully explained that in the event of a court case a member state would have to explain any failure to apply the Guidance.
However DETR has told us on the 'phone that it has no status. Chris Mullin says 3 that the UK has yet to consider it and that there are no immediate plans for changes in the way metals are cleared.
We are seeking a meeting with DETR and the Environment Agency to clarify their view of this.

Ambivalent Guidance

Now the plot thickens, as the Guidance is itself ambivalent about Clearance of metals. It says ...

there are a number of advantages to clearance after melting ... so that the competent authorities can authorise this practice after an appropriate investigation of the radiological consequences.
Well, we know what "radiological consequences" their investigation will admit; it will be limited by the usual bogus scientific modelling. So the regulators will tell operators "OK, so long you make sure itís well mixed with clean material you can clear it". Thus the Environment Agency might sanction what BNFL has already been doing, without public knowledge.

Radioactive slags and dusts

There is some justification for re-using radioactive metals within the industry, but smelting them generates radioactive slag and dusts which may themselves be eligible for Clearance. This is of concern because these materials have commercial uses, including fertilisers, building materials, and surfaces for football pitches, roads, car parks and so on.

Our position -- Slag and dusts from melting metal under licence to remain under regulatory control.


1 Surprises in Store: New Scientist April 29 2000

2 European Commission Radiation Protection 89 "Recommended radiological protection criteria for the recycling of metals from the dismantling of nuclear installations": recommendations of the group of experts set up under the terms of Article 31 of the Euratom Treaty. Directorate General Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection 1998

3 letter to Linda Perham MP 5 Nov '99 CM/27172/99 para 8E.5

4 letter to Linda Perham MP 5 Nov '99 CM/27172/99 para 8E.3

If you are seeing this page full screen (i.e. without a navigation bar on the left) you can't see how the rest of the site is organised.
This Home page link takes you to the index page, which has links to all the topics we discuss on the site [only use it if this page is full screen]

Send email to: with questions or comments about this web site.
This page was last updated June 10th 2001