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Tennessee’s role as the nation’s destination for low-level radioactive waste processing, disposal and more

by Don Safer, President, Tennessee Environmental Council

TENNESSEE ALLOWS RADIOACTIVE WASTE PROCESSING and disposal practices that are unique in the United States. This has made Tennessee the nation’s primary pathway for the processing and disposal of low level radioactive waste materials. In the year 2000 (the last year that the NRC compiled these numbers in a state by state comparison) Tennessee was responsible for 58.6% of the materials that were disposed at the 3 licensed landfills receiving radioactive materials in the U.S. Add the radioactive materials that were incinerated and land filled and Tennessee received at least 75% of the nation’s llrw. Currently Tennessee is collecting a 1.5 cent per pound fee on approximately 41 million pounds of material that comes to radioactive waste processors across the state annually. The state Division of Radiological Health (DRH) does not break down these numbers for in state and out of state generators. In 2009 almost 4 million pounds of these materials ended up in 4 Tennessee landfills with about half going to the North and South Shelby County landfills; Chestnut Ridge in Anderson County received 1,861,000 pounds. The other landfill in this program is Carters Valley in Hawkins County.

Here are some specific examples:

1) Tennessee is the only state in the U. S. that allows a program that has come to be called Bulk Survey for Release (BSFR). The state allows licensed radioactive waste processors to make a determination that materials which have come to them from radioactive waste generators have low enough levels of radiation to release into 4 municipal landfills across the state. This is a “blanket” permit and state oversight of the program is practically all bureaucratic; DRH averages less than one site visit to the processors every 13 months and some of these are for other matters. In 2007, 5 million pounds of materials were disposed under this program, which has been operating since the early 1990’s. In comparison, the NRC manages these types of materials under 10 CFR 20.2002 which requires a case by case determination. Since 2000 the NRC has received only 20 requests for such alternate disposals. This program was never authorized by the legislature; it was developed by TDEC as a way to “facilitate” the disposal of materials from radioactive waste processors across the state.

2) Tennessee has 7 operating incinerators or other facilities which volume reduce radioactive waste by heat treatment. The latest, the Impact pyrolysis process in Oak Ridge began operating in 2009 with 4 combustion chambers and a 4,000 pound per day capacity. Efforts to find other radioactive waste incinerators currently operating in the rest of the 49 states have identified only one.

3) EnergySolutions has applied to the NRC for an application to import 1000 tons of German radioactive waste for burning at its Bear Creek Incinerators in Oak Ridge. EnergySolutions says that it is authorized by the State of Tennessee to possess and process any material that DOT regulations permit to be transported.

4) EnergySolutions has withdrawn its application for a permit to import 20,000 tons of radioactive waste from the abandoned Italian nuclear power program to Oak Ridge for processing. The company is reworking its proposal. The original plan was extremely controversial; it involved burning, melting, compacting and otherwise processing the radioactive material. The remaining 1600 tons of radioactive waste was to be buried in the licensed radioactive waste landfill in Clive, Utah. Both Utah and the Northwest Compact objected to the plan. This would have been by far the largest amount of foreign radioactive waste ever to be brought into the United States.

5) The Class B and C resin waste from the reactors in 36 states currently has no disposal path because of the higher levels of radiation they contain. There are two proposals from private nuclear waste processing companies to create disposal solutions: they both would have the waste coming to Tennessee for processing.
EnergySolutions would lower the classification by blending with less radioactive Class A material in Oak Ridge (the state of Utah is fighting this proposal); Studsvik would cook these radioactive resins for significant volume reduction in Erwin.

6) The Studsvik facility on President’s Island in Memphis is the only place in the U.S. where radioactive steam generators from pressurized water reactors are taken for processing, or dismantling. These units are up to 70 feet tall and weigh as much as 800 tons. These must be taken apart, piece by piece to separate the parts that are highly radioactive. These contain a significant amount of plutonium and other dangerous radionuclides. Much of the material deemed to be “extremely low level” by Studsvik will end up in the North or South Shelby landfills.

7) The US Department of Energy has contracted with 4 companies for treatment of Class A, B, and C, low-level and mixed level radioactive and hazardous waste from across the entire complex of DOE Office of Environmental Management projects. All four companies process waste principally, if not exclusively in Tennessee. The four are: EnergySolutions, Studsvik, Perma-Fix, and Philo-Technics.

8) RACE, Radiological Assistance Consulting and Engineering, which was purchased by Studsvik agreed in January, 2010 to pay a $650,000 fine to settle claims by the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission it subjected African-American employees to an alarming variety of discriminatory practices, including intentional exposure to higher levels of radiation than those faced by white workers. It is unclear if Tennessee’s Division of Radiological Health was involved in responding to the violations.

9) Sloppy practices, fires and accidents at the Nuclear Fuel Services facility in Erwin forced the NRC to temporarily shut down all of its operations in December of 2009.


"To the village square
we must carry the facts
of atomic energy.
From there must come America's voice."





Official Request for Public Hearing

Hearing Request (Letter)

EnergySolutions Response

EnergySolutions Application for Import License

NRC Request for Additional Information

NRC Order Granting Time Extension to Request Public Hearing


Waste Gasification Impacts on the Environment and Public Health
BREDL 2009 report

Incineration and Gasification: A Toxic Comparison
BREDL 2002 fact sheet