Scientists and advocates are raising concerns about a proposed relaxation on regulations for disposing of nuclear waste, saying that the government should halt the proposal as the scientific community focuses on the coronavirus. 

A March 6 Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) proposal would allow for the disposal of some nuclear waste in municipal landfills, rather than a licensed facility.

Advocates say the proposal could put public health at risk, pushing the NRC to give the public more time to weigh in.

“What they’re trying to do is prop up a failing industry so that the cost of decommissioning these [nuclear] reactors is reduced so you don’t have to send it to a place that is expensive because it’s designed to safely handle it,” said Dan Hirsch, the former director of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy. 

“I find it just astonishing that they would do that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic,” he added. “How the NRC can look themselves in the mirror to propose massive deregulation and do it in the midst of the pandemic, I find it just ethically shocking.”

NRC spokesman David McIntyre said, however, that exemptions in the proposal will be “not very” widespread. 

“It would just make it a little more efficient so that we or the state would not have to do a separate review for each case,” he said. 

He also said that NRC had been planning to extend the proposal’s comment period, which is currently slated to end on April 20, by 45 days and is considering a longer extension.

To Hirsch, the 45 day extension isn’t good enough. 

“If they’re going to consider it at all, it should only be considered once the pandemic is behind us,” he said. 

Currently, the nuclear waste in question is typically disposed of at licensed waste disposal facilities, which have adequate training and equipment to protect public health. 

The proposal would grant some exceptions to this regulation for waste with a cumulative radiation dose level of up to 25 millirem.

According to the NRC, Americans receive an average radiation dose of about 620 millirem each year. A chest x-ray would give off 10 millirem while a full-body CT scan would give a dose of 1,000 millirem.

In a statement on Thursday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Pacific Director Jeff Ruch also criticized the proposal. 

“NRC’s action could transform most municipal dumps into radioactive repositories, with essentially no safeguards for workers, nearby residents, or adjoining water tables,” he said. 

By Rachel Frazin