Tennessee Accepts Huge Shipment of German Radioactive Waste

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Federal authorities have approved licenses allowing up to 1,000 tons of low-level radioactive waste from Germany to be brought to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for incineration.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision has some environmental groups calling the plan unhealthy and a possible gateway for highly radioactive wastes to be reprocessed or recycled in East Tennessee's "Atomic City."

Don Safer, chairman of the Tennessee Environmental Council, told The Chattanooga Times Free Press that the Czech government turned away the waste and Utah did everything in its power to avoid receiving the ash left behind after incineration at Oak Ridge, forcing most of it to be shipped back to Germany.

EnergySolutions, a Utah-based multinational company that operates radioactive waste disposal facilities in Oak Ridge, said the process is safe when the proposal was introduced a few months ago.

Company officials also said EnergySolutions has treated low-level radioactive waste, such as X-ray equipment, medical waste or contaminated clothing and mops from nuclear plants, for American businesses and the government at Oak Ridge since the facility opened more than 20 years ago.

"There's more (radioactive) tritium in the atmosphere from cosmic rays from the sun than what we'd ever emit from there," EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said last March.

Because the licenses have been approved but not yet signed, the company has not confirmed import dates for the waste, he said.

Tennessee is the only state that allows commercial burning of radioactive waste, licensing six incinerators. The state already receives 75 percent of the nation's low-level radioactive waste — about 41 million pounds per year, according to state records.

With German waste now permitted to enter the U.S. and come to Oak Ridge, Safer expects Tennessee to become "the destination for processing radioactive waste from all over the world."