Very Low Level Waste

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Background

10 CFR Part 61, "Licensing Requirements for Land Disposal of Radioactive Waste," provides licensing procedures, performance objectives, and technical requirements for the issuance of licenses for the land disposal of low-level radioactive waste (LLRW). There are four waste classifications in the regulation arranged according to their hazard – Classes A, B, C, and Greater-Than Class C. The majority of LLRW by volume is Class A waste. It represents nearly 90% of all LLRW generated.

The lowest portion of Class A waste has been referred to as very low-level waste (VLLW), also known as "low-activity waste" (LAW). The term VLLW is not a formal designation and does not have a statutory or regulatory definition. In general, VLLW contains some residual radioactivity, including naturally occurring radionuclides, which may 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. The current disposal options for VLLW are Part 61 low level waste facility or, in some instances, VLLW could be disposed under the provisions of 10 CFR 20.2002, "Method for obtaining approval of proposed disposal procedures." With more decommissioning waste anticipated, the volume of LAW is expected to increase in the future.

In 2007, due to developments in the national program for LLRW disposal, as well as changes in the regulatory environment, the NRC staff performed a strategic assessment of its LLRW program. The results of this assessment were documented in SECY-07-0180, "Strategic Assessment of Low-Level Radioactive Waste Regulatory Program." The Strategic Assessment identified the need to coordinate with other agencies on consistency in regulating LAW disposal and to develop guidance that summarizes disposition options for low-end materials and waste. The Strategic Assessment also designated promulgating a rule for disposal of LAW as a low priority.

Major VLLW Activities

Alternative Disposal Guidance

In 2016 the NRC staff conducted a programmatic assessment of the LLRW program, SECY-16-0118, to identify and prioritize tasks that the NRC can undertake to ensure a stable, reliable, and adaptable regulatory framework for effective LLRW management, while also considering future needs and changes that may occur in the nation's commercial LLRW management system. The programmatic assessment identified the need to finalize guidance for 10 CFR 20.2002 requests to improve the alternate disposal process. On April 9, 2020 (85 FR 19966) the NRC issued revised guidance for alternative disposal requests, "Guidance for the Reviews of Proposed Disposal Procedures and Transfers of Radioactive Material Under 10 CFR 20.2002 and 10 CFR 40.13(a)," which provides guidance and the NRC staff process for documenting, reviewing, and dispositioning requests received for alternative disposal of licensed material. The revision incorporates changes made in response to comments received on the draft guidance document, as well as interactions with NRC stakeholders.

Transfer of Very Low-Level Waste to Exempt Persons for Disposal

On March 6, 2020, the NRC issued a proposed interpretation of its low-level radioactive waste disposal regulations in 10 CFR 20.2001 that would permit licensees to dispose of waste by transfer to persons who hold specific exemptions for the purpose of disposal (85 FR 13076). In the proposed interpretation, the NRC would consider approval of requests for specific exemptions for the purpose of disposal if they are for the disposal of VLLW by land burial. Therefore, the NRC's intent is that this interpretive rule would allow licensees to transfer VLLW to exempt persons for the purpose of disposal by land burial. On December 17, 2020, the NRC withdrew the  proposed interpretation (85 FR 81849). The proposal was withdrawn based on the NRC staff’s assessment that the proposed changes may not benefit the regulatory framework for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste.

VLLW Scoping Study

In the 2016 programmatic assessment, performing a LAW scoping study was also designated as a medium priority. The LAW scoping study task combines several tasks originally in the 2007 strategic assessment and includes: coordinating with other agencies on consistency in regulating LAW; determining the impact of LAW disposal from radiological dispersal devices; and developing regulatory options that would define the conditions under which LAW, including mixed waste, could be disposed of in Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle C hazardous waste facilities. The LAW scoping study has been renamed the VLLW scoping study to be more consistent with the current regulatory structure.

The purpose of the VLLW scoping study is to identify the actions that the NRC should take to strengthen its regulatory framework for VLLW. The regulatory focus is on developing a framework for accommodating the large volumes of VLLW associated with the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, as well as alternative waste streams that may be created by fuel reprocessing and new types of nuclear facilities.

The VLLW study will consider the divergent stakeholder comments submitted as part of the 2016 programmatic assessment; lessons learned from the "below regulatory concern" policy statements published in the Federal Register on July 3, 1990 (55 FR 27522), and August 29, 1986 (51 FR 30839); lessons learned from the Commission's 2005 decision not to publish a proposed rule (the "Clearance" rule) on radiological criteria for controlling the disposition of solid materials; best practices of other countries with respect to VLLW disposal; and other factors to inform the NRC staff's recommendations for addressing VLLW. The scope of the study will also include work with other government agencies to evaluate the impact of large quantities of VLLW that would result from cleanup if a radiological dispersal device or similar device were used in the United States, and to ensure that VLLW resulting from such devices has a disposal pathway. The staff will proactively engage the Commission on any policy issues identified during the VLLW scoping study. The NRC staff is currently reviewing stakeholder feedback on the VLLW scoping study.

Public Involvement on the Scoping Study

The NRC has a long-standing practice of conducting its regulatory responsibilities in an open manner. For that reason, the NRC is committed to informing the public about its regulatory, licensing, and oversight activities, and providing opportunities for the public to participate in the agency's decision making process. For general information about the available opportunities for public involvement in NRC activities, see Public Meetings and Involvement, and NUREG/BR-0215, "Public Involvement in the Regulatory Process."

The staff conducted several public meetings during the development of the very low-level waste scoping study to engage interested stakeholders.

Date Description
03/23/2018

Low-Level Radioactive Waste Program Public Meeting

02/22/2018

Very Low-Level Radioactive Waste Scoping Study and Greater Than Class C Waste Public Meeting

03/10/2017

Discuss the NRC's LLRW Regulatory Program

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Monday, February 01, 2021