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Low-Level Waste Disposal Under 10 CFR 20.2002

View 10 CFR Part 20.2002

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Why 10 CFR 20.2002 authorizations are needed

10 CFR 20.2002 is available for use by licensees for wastes that typically are a small fraction of the Class A limits contained in Part 61, and for which the extensive controls in Part 61 are not needed to ensure protection of public health and safety and the environment. Thus,10 CFR 20.2002 provides an alternative, safe, risk-informed disposal method for these materials, which are frequently called "low-activity waste." Although these materials could be disposed of in a licensed low-level radioactive waste facility, if a licensee chose to do so, disposal at another type of facility under 10 CFR 20.2002 may significantly reduce transportation distances (often on the order of one to two thousand miles), provide for more disposal options, and lower disposal costs, while still providing for protection of public health and safety and the environment.

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The history of 10 CFR 20.2002 in NRC regulations

10 CFR 20.2002 and its predecessors in earlier versions of 10 CFR Part 20, 10 CFR 20.304 and 20.302, have been in NRC's regulations and available for use by licensees since 1959. 10 CFR 20.302 was used to license the early low-level radioactive waste disposal sites before NRC's Part 61 for LLW disposal facilities was promulgated in 1982. Part 61 disposal facilities are designed for the disposal of all but the most highly radioactive low-level radioactive waste. To ensure safety and the protection of the environment, Part 61 provides detailed requirements for the performance of low-level waste disposal facilities, along with specific siting, design, operations, and closure requirements. Since some waste that has a low hazard can be safely disposed of in other than a 10 CFR Part 61 low-level waste facility,10 CFR 20.2002 continues to be available for use by licensees to propose alternative methods of disposal.

NRC has received more than one hundred requests in the last 30 years for 10 CFR 20.2002 approvals. Although about 2/3 of these requests were for onsite disposals, the trend in recent years has been for fewer onsite and more offsite disposals. Since 2000, NRC has received twenty requests for 20.2002 alternate disposal authorizations, seventeen of which were for offsite disposal.

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How public and environmental safety is assured when NRC reviews a 10 CFR 20.2002 request

Under the authority of the Atomic Energy Act, NRC regulates the uses of certain radioactive materials to ensure that public health and safety and the environment are protected. NRC reviews the information contained in a 20.2002 request from a licensee to determine if the proposed disposal will be safe. For offsite disposals, standard practice is to assess three scenarios that potentially expose people to radiation to determine the exposure levels: 1) a transportation worker (e.g. truck driver), 2) a worker at the disposal facility, and 3) a resident at the site, for which long term impacts are examined. The request is typically authorized by NRC if the projected radiation dose is less than "a few millirem per year," and the basis for the authorization is documented in a Safety Evaluation Report. An Environmental Assessment is also prepared and, after receiving comments from the affected States (the States in which the generator of the waste and the waste disposal facility are located), both documents are issued along with the approval granted to the licensee. For offsite disposals, NRC also grants an exemption from its licensing requirements in the Atomic Energy Act in conjunction with the 10 CFR 20.2002 authorization.

Onsite 20.2002 disposal approvals by NRC are somewhat simpler. The exposure scenarios are different from offsite disposals and generally easier to analyze. The licensee controls the use of the property and thus how persons might be exposed to radiation from the disposal. Also, the materials disposed of remain under license and must be addressed by licensees as part of the decommissioning of the facility. The staff recently published draft guidance in NUREG-1757, Rev. 2, "Consolidated NMSS Decommissioning Guidance," that addresses in greater detail the unique considerations for onsite disposal.

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Materials typically disposed of under 10 CFR 20.2002 and their relative hazards

In practice, 10 CFR 20.2002 is most often used for disposal of low-activity radioactive waste in hazardous or local solid waste landfills that are permitted under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), but it can be used for any type of disposal not already defined in the regulations, such as disposal on a licensee's site or on offsite private property. The term "low-activity waste" (LAW) does not have a statutory or regulatory definition, but generally means wastes that contain some residual radioactivity, including naturally occurring radionuclides, which can be safely disposed of in hazardous or municipal solid waste landfills. Such waste possesses a small fraction of the hazard of waste at the Class A limits in 10 CFR Part 61. NRC may authorize its licensees to dispose of waste under 10 CFR 20.2002, but other low-activity waste, not regulated by NRC is also disposed of in landfills and hazardous waste sites.

Past NRC 20.2002 disposal authorizations have included the offsite disposal of large quantities (hundreds of thousands of cubic feet) of very low levels of radioactivity in permitted landfills, disposals on the licensees' property, disposal of short-lived waste in oil wells, disposal of incinerator ash from universities and research laboratories in landfills, and use of filtercake with source material as feedstock for a cement kiln. Concentrations are typically below those that would cause a dose in excess of 1 mrem/yr if released for any use and without any controls, i.e. if the materials had been cleared for unrestricted use.

In addition to waste authorized for disposal under 10 CFR 20.2002, a wide variety of radioactive materials are disposed of in hazardous and solid waste landfills that are regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA is implemented by the U.S. EPA and States authorized by EPA.

Many materials with naturally occurring radioactivity are disposed of in landfills. Other sources of radioactivity in landfills are man-made items. Some of the radioactive materials that may be disposed of in landfills include the following:

  • Short-lived nuclear medicine radioisotopes with a half life of less than 65 days, from hospitals, medical clinics, or from patients' homes. These may include paper towels, dishes, tableware, bedding and anything else touched by a patient. Because the half-life is so short, the hazard quickly disappears.

  • Items containing naturally occurring radioactivity, such as:

  • Fertilizer
    Sheet rock
    Ion exchange resins from water purification
    Coal ash
    Oil and gas production sludges
  • Consumer products:
  • Timepieces (tritium, radium, promethium)
    Smoke detectors
    Gas lantern mantles (Coleman lanterns, e.g.)
    Optical lenses for cameras, glasses, binoculars, telescopes, etc.
    Road salt

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Why NRC uses two different methods for approving 20.2002 requests

NRC currently approves nuclear power reactor 10 CFR 20.2002 requests by letter to the licensee. For all other NRC licensees, NRC amends the license. For reactors, NRC reserves the license for high safety significance items, but has an extensive hierarchy for tracking all items of safety significance. The hierarchy includes license conditions, licensee commitments, and other reactor licensee actions. 10 CFR 20.2002 authorizations do not meet the established criteria for including them in reactor licenses because of their low safety significance. For materials licensees, it is advantageous to include the 20.2002 authorization in the license as a way to track and inspect against licensee commitments. Amending the license provides an opportunity for an adjudicatory hearing for persons whose interests may be affected by the approval, whereas a letter approval does not involve a hearing opportunity. NRC is considering, however, whether any changes to the existing procedures are warranted. A decision is expected by the end of 2007.

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How to get additional information from NRC

Questions/comments/requests for additional information can be directed to David McIntyre in the Office of Public Affairs:

Local: 301-415-8200, Toll-free: 800-368-5642
TDD: 301-415-5575, Fax: 301-415-2234

You may also complete an online email form.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Thursday, March 29, 2012