United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Frequently Asked Questions about Land Disposal of Unique Waste Streams

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What is low-level radioactive waste?

Low-level radioactive waste streams contain source, special nuclear, or byproduct material that are acceptable for disposal in a near-surface (i.e., within the upper 30 meters of the earth's surface) land disposal facility. For the purposes of this definition, low-level waste has the same meaning as in the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act, that is, radioactive waste not classified as high-level radioactive waste, transuranic waste, spent nuclear fuel, or byproduct material as defined in section 11e.(2) of the Atomic Energy Act (i.e., uranium or thorium tailings and waste).

Industries; hospitals and medical, educational, or research institutions; private or government laboratories; and nuclear fuel cycle facilities (e.g., nuclear power reactors and fuel fabrication plants) that use radioactive materials generate low-level wastes as part of their normal operations. These waste streams are generated in many physical and chemical forms and levels of contamination.

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Which regulations apply to land disposal of low-level radioactive waste?

Regulations issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are found in Chapter I of Title 10, "Energy," of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR). Chapter I is divided into Parts 1 through 199, which contain requirements that are binding for all individuals and entities that possess, use, or store nuclear materials or operate nuclear facilities under the NRC's jurisdiction. Of these, the regulations that are most relevant to land disposal of radioactive waste are contained in 10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste."

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Why is it necessary to update the regulations?

The licensing of new uranium enrichment facilities in the United States has raised depleted uranium to the forefront of low-level radioactive waste disposal issues. The depleted uranium waste stream is unique amongst LLRW streams; the relatively high concentrations and large quantities of depleted uranium that are generated by enrichment facilities were not considered in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (NUREG-0945) supporting the development of 10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste." When NUREG-0945 was issued in 1982, there were no commercial facilities generating significant amounts of depleted uranium waste streams, therefore, NUREG-0945 considered only types of uranium-bearing waste streams being typically disposed of by U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensees at that time.

With the existing U.S. Department of Energy enrichment facilities, and the recent NRC licensing of commercial enrichment facilities, more than one million metric tons of depleted uranium will require a disposition path. Existing disposal facilities such as the EnergySolutions' facility in Clive, Utah and the Waste Control Specialists' facility in Andrews County, Texas, have expressed interest to their Agreement State regulators in disposing of depleted uranium at their sites.

The NRC recognizes that the analysis supporting regulations in 10 CFR Part 61 did not address the disposal of significant quantities of depleted uranium, and that there may be a need to place additional restrictions at a specific site or deny such disposal based on unique site characteristics. Therefore, the NRC will update the regulations to specify a requirement for a site-specific analysis that demonstrates unique waste streams, including significant quantities of depleted uranium, can be disposed of safely.

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What commercial uranium enrichment facilities are planned for the United States?

Currently, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) leases one uranium enrichment facility in Paducah, Kentucky from the U.S. Department of Energy. The operation of the facility has been regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since March 1997. A second existing facility in Piketon, Ohio was shut down in March 2001. In addition, four private entities plan to construct and operate new commercial uranium enrichment facilities: Louisiana Energy Services (LES), USEC, AREVA Enrichment Services (AES), and General Electric-Hitachi (GEH).

LES submitted a license application to the NRC in December 2003 for a facility in Lea County, New Mexico. In June 2006, NRC issued LES a license to construct and operate its facility. The facility is currently under construction. USEC submitted an application in August 2004 to operate a commercial facility at Piketon, Ohio. NRC issued a license for this facility in April 2007. The facility is currently under construction. AES submitted a license application to NRC in December 2008 for a site in Bonneville County, Idaho. The application is currently under review. GEH announced in April 2009, that it intends to apply for a license to build and operate a uranium enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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What is depleted uranium?

The uranium fuel cycle begins by extracting and milling natural uranium ore to produce "yellow cake," a varying mixture of uranium oxides. Low-grade natural ores contain about 0.05 to 0.3% by weight of uranium oxide while high-grade natural ores can contain up to 70% by weight of uranium oxide. Uranium found in natural ores contains two principle isotopes – uranium-238 (99.3%) and uranium-235 (0.7%). The uranium is enriched in uranium-235 before being made into nuclear fuel. Uranium enrichment processes generate a product consisting of 3 to 5 percent uranium-235 for use as nuclear fuel and a product of depleted uranium (about 0.3 percent U-235). The depleted uranium has some commercial applications including counterweights and antitank armaments. However, the commercial demand for depleted uranium is currently much less than the amounts generated. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has about 750,000 metric tons of depleted uranium in storage. Under the U.S. Enrichment Corporation Privatization Act, DOE is required to accept depleted uranium from a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licensed uranium enrichment facility if the depleted uranium is determined to be low-level radioactive waste. If the depleted uranium has no commercial use, the licensee can transfer the material to DOE or dispose of it at a commercial disposal site if it meets the disposal site's requirements.

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Why is depleted uranium considered a Class A low-level radioactive waste?

The regulations at 10 CFR 61.55, "Waste Classification,” specify classes of low-level radioactive waste for near-surface disposal considering the longevity of the radionuclides contained in the waste. Disposal of Class A waste streams must meet minimum requirements while Classes B and C waste must meet more rigorous requirements to ensure stability of the waste and protect against inadvertent intrusion. Radioactive waste requiring disposal methods more stringent than those for Class C is not generally suited for near-surface disposal.

Depleted uranium is a source material as defined by Section 11(z) of the Atomic Energy Act, and if treated as a waste would fall under the definition of Class A low-level radioactive waste under 10 CFR 61.55(a). However, the Commission recognizes that the assessment supporting 10 CFR 61.55 did not address the disposal of significant quantities of depleted uranium. The Commission tasked the staff to evaluate the issue and provide recommendations to the Commission resulting in the staff's analysis (SECY-08-0147) dated October 7, 2008. In a Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM-SECY-08-0147), dated March 18, 2009, the Commission approved staff's recommendation to proceed with rulemaking in 10 CFR Part 61 to specify a requirement for a site-specific analysis for the disposal of unique waste streams, including but not limited to significant quantities of depleted uranium.

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What are unique waste streams?

Depleted uranium is unique because the relatively high concentration and large quantity generated by uranium enrichment facilities were not considered by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (NUREG-0945) supporting regulations in 10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste." The NRC recognizes that the analysis supporting the criteria did not address the disposal of significant quantities of depleted uranium, and that there may be a need to place additional restrictions at a specific site or deny such disposal based on unique site characteristics.

Therefore, the NRC will update the regulations in 10 CFR Part 61 to specify a requirement for a site-specific analysis that demonstrates unique waste streams, including significant quantities of depleted uranium, can be disposed of safely. As currently envisioned, unique waste streams could include those that emerge in the future from new facilities that generate significantly different concentrations or quantities of waste not previously considered in NUREG-0945. As part of the rulemaking process for 10 CFR Part 61, NRC will be soliciting public comment on defining unique waste streams.

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What are some of the key issues with disposal of unique waste streams?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff has identified several key issues for initial discussion with stakeholders. These include defining key regulatory terms such as unique waste streams and significant quantities of depleted uranium as well as technical parameters of a site-specific analysis including a time period of performance, appropriate exposure scenarios for protection of the public and individuals from inadvertent intrusion. The NRC staff is also soliciting stakeholder views on technical issues for a site-specific analysis of near-surface disposal of significant quantities of depleted uranium. These technical issues include appropriate considerations for depleted uranium waste form(s), uranium geochemistry, and radon migration and exposure. These issues arose from the results of the NRC staff's technical analysis (SECY-08-0147) that was submitted to the Commission on October 7, 2008, in response to Commission Order CLI-05-20 regarding depleted uranium. Given those issues, the Commission's related Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM-SECY-08-0147), dated March 18, 2009, instructed the staff to begin engagement with stakeholders and interested parties to initiate development of the technical basis for possible revision of the 10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste." Toward that end, the staff has scheduled public workshops to discuss the benefits and impacts of revising 10 CFR Part 61. In so doing, the staff hopes to identify potential conflicts and gain an understanding of any unintended consequences that may result from drafting and implementing related changes to the NRC's existing regulations.

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What are other countries doing?

Depleted uranium exists in several countries around the world, particularly those which are currently or have operated uranium enrichment facilities. Currently, most countries, including the United States, consider depleted uranium a potentially valuable resource and are safely storing it. Depleted uranium has potential economic value as an energy source through re-enrichment processes, industrial applications including counterweights and radiation shielding, and military uses such as antitank armaments. However, the demand for depleted uranium is currently much less than the amounts generated. Therefore, a number of countries are conducting their own research and development programs into potential applications. Long-term disposition of depleted uranium will be needed if depleted uranium stockpiles are determined to have no economic potential. The International Atomic Energy Agency recommends that countries pursuing disposal establish limits for long-lived radionuclides, such as depleted uranium, based on the assessment of a specific near-surface disposal facility.

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Will the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) consider options proposed by the public and industry?

Yes. The NRC will provide opportunities, through public workshops and its rulemaking process, for stakeholders and interested parties to introduce options, issues, and information for consideration.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Tuesday, April 26, 2016