U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act provided a program that enabled U.S. states to dispose of low-level radioactive wastes.

Summary of Event

Different types of nuclear wastes present varying kinds of danger. High-level radioactive wastes are liquids that are generated when used nuclear reactor fuel is reprocessed. In the 1970’s, Presidents Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. and Jimmy Carter both banned commercial reprocessing of such wastes on the grounds that the plutonium produced in the process could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The U.S. government continued to reprocess fuel for military use, however. By 1979, about 75 million gallons of high-level waste had been generated, and it was stored at sites in Washington State, Idaho, South Carolina, and New York. Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (1980)[Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act]
Nuclear waste;legislation
[kw]U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste (Dec. 22, 1980)
[kw]Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste, U.S. (Dec. 22, 1980)
[kw]”Low-Level” Nuclear Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses (Dec. 22, 1980)
[kw]Nuclear Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” (Dec. 22, 1980)
[kw]Waste, U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear (Dec. 22, 1980)
Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (1980)[Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act]
Nuclear waste;legislation
[g]North America;Dec. 22, 1980: U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste[04350]
[g]United States;Dec. 22, 1980: U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste[04350]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 22, 1980: U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste[04350]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 22, 1980: U.S. Congress Addresses “Low-Level” Nuclear Waste[04350]
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;environmental policy
Derrick, Butler
Riley, Richard

A second type of nuclear waste, uranium tailings, contains naturally occurring radioactive materials. Huge piles of these tailings, in the form of fine sand, were dumped at abandoned mills and mines in eleven states. A third type, spent nuclear fuel, while technically not classified as nuclear waste, contains minerals that can still be reused. Because of the ban on reprocessing, however, utilities had to store spent fuel in pools of water near their reactors, but the pools filled up rapidly. The U.S. Department of Energy Department of Energy, U.S. (DOE) estimated that twenty-seven nuclear power plants would require additional nuclear storage before 1985.

A fourth type of nuclear waste is low-level radioactive waste generated by all activities that involve radioactive materials; this includes contaminated paper, plastics, construction materials, tools, protective clothing, and industrial and medical wastes. The term “low-level” refers not to the degree of radioactivity but to the source; all wastes not produced in nuclear reactors or in the reprocessing of nuclear fuel are classified as low-level. Some experts complain that the name implies that low-level wastes are not dangerous when some are highly radioactive and dangerous.

Of the more than 100,000 cubic meters of low-level wastes buried each year in three commercial dumps in the United States, about 43 percent comes from nuclear power plants, 25 percent from hospitals, 24 percent from industry, and 8 percent from the federal government. The DOE buries another 50,000 cubic meters of low-level waste each year in its own dumps, which are adjacent to the commercial dumps. For twenty-five years, until 1970, a large amount of low-level waste was placed into metal barrels and dumped in fifty sites in the oceans. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;nuclear waste (EPA) testified before Congress in 1980, when the bill was being debated, that as many as one-fourth of those barrels were leaking.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, low-level wastes were either buried in shallow trenches at sites owned and operated by the federal government or packaged in steel drums and dumped at sea. The government-owned sites were developed primarily to serve defense and government nuclear research activities. Until the 1960’s, the wastes were simply placed onto Navy ships and hauled out to sea. With the increase in wastes caused by commercial nuclear power, it became more economical to replace ocean dumping with landfills and to allow a shift from federal to private control. Commercial landfills were patterned after those at defense installations, where wastes were packaged in steel drums and dumped into trenches dug into the earth once they were filled. These low-level waste dumps were created with almost no comprehensive planning or federal oversight.

The first commercial dump opened near Beatty, Nevada, in 1962 and was followed in 1963 by dumps in Maxey Flats, Kentucky, and West Valley, New York. More dumps opened in Richland, Washington, in 1965; Sheffield, Illinois, in 1967; and Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1971. The West Valley dump closed in 1975, Maxey Flats in 1977, and Sheffield in 1978, because radioactive materials had migrated off the sites. Merely closing the sites did not end the problems. Plutonium was detected more than one mile from the site of Maxey Flats, the largest of the closed dumps. Groundwater contaminated with tritium was moving out of the Sheffield site at the rate of one-half mile per year. At West Valley, trenches were infiltrated with water, creating a bathtub effect that spilled tritium and strontium into nearby streams. As Marvin Resnikoff, codirector of the Sierra Club Radioactive Waste Campaign, put it, “Landfills act a lot like teabags: the water goes in, the flavor goes out.” As a result of the closures and problems at other sites, the dump at South Carolina became the largest commercial dump in the country.

As the amount of wastes accumulated, however, Congress became aware of the need to create a comprehensive nuclear-waste policy to deal with nuclear wastes. The National Governors Association National Governors Association pushed for a low-level waste bill, asserting that the problem of dealing with low-level radioactive wastes was approaching crisis stage. The problem of low-level nuclear wastes was particularly crucial because of the vast amounts of waste being generated in every state throughout the United States; only three states Washington, Nevada, and South Carolina had dumps for this waste, and they were threatening to stop taking it all. Washington voters had approved a ballot initiative on November 4, 1980, to close the disposal site in the city of Hanford Hanford Nuclear Reservation to out-of-state nuclear garbage beginning in the summer of 1981. Nevada governor Robert List List, Robert had promised to close his state’s dump at Beatty, Nevada; and South Carolina’s governor, Richard Riley, whose state accepted the majority of the low-level wastes from around the country, decided that his state would accept less in the future.

Congress was unable to reach an agreement on a comprehensive plan, however. On December 10, 1980, Governor Riley let it be known that he was considering closing one dump to all out-of-state waste if Congress did not pass a bill dealing with the problem. As a result, Congressman Butler Derrick, a Democrat from South Carolina, put together an unusually forceful effort to get at least a compromise bill passed in the Senate. This was finally accomplished on December 13, 1980, and President Jimmy Carter signed the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Act on December 22, 1980.


The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Act encouraged individual states where low-level radioactive waste was dumped to enter into clubs, agreements, or regional “compacts” with neighboring states to create new regional disposal sites. As of 1986, it was decided that individual states would be allowed to restrict access to their disposal sites and to accept only waste generated within their region. At the time, it was anticipated that some six or seven compact sites would be established. By 1985, however, progress had been so slow that the January 1, 1986, deadline was declared to be unmanageable. Congress realized that the law had provided no incentives to meet the deadline. As a result, under President Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald Congress in 1985 passed an updated version of the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act; this act revised the timetable and allowed continued access, on a limited basis, to the three existing sites until January 1, 1993.

With the 1985 act, the DOE became responsible for facilitating the compact arrangement between states, for coordinating the national program on low-level radioactive waste disposal, and for reporting on progress to Congress. Penalties and surcharges were to be paid to the DOE escrow account, which was established to ensure compliance by the states with the conditions and the timetable of the 1985 act.

The revisions of the 1985 Low-Level Radioactive Policy Act resulted in the states becoming responsible for their own radioactive wastes. The revised law ordered the states to create more low-level nuclear-waste sites, however, not fewer, and to speed up the process rather than focus on better waste management.

Various criticisms were raised concerning the 1985 amendments. Instead of having the three original low-level radioactive waste sites, which were located in remote areas geographically suitable for radiation contaminants, the act called for twelve or more waste sites, some of them in more populated and geographically unsuitable areas. As a result of the mandated timetables, states were discouraged from using more innovative techniques to dispose of low-level nuclear waste.

Scientific debate continued on how much radiation was harmful. Some authorities, including those setting federal exposure standards, believed that the effects of exposure below a certain level of radiation were imperceptible, while others argued that exposure to radiation of any amount could cause damage. Different substances could have different effects. Some radioactive substances decayed to the point of harmlessness in less than one day; others emitted energy and remained hazardous for thousands of years. Some radioactive substances posed a threat to humans through mere external exposure; others presented a danger only if the substances were inhaled or swallowed.

The disposal of low-level radioactive waste remained problematic. It was difficult to define or determine who should be responsible for it and where it should be discarded. Although several studies recommended that the low-level radioactive burial sites be returned to federal jurisdiction, the 1985 act returned the problem to the states. It called on them to form interstate compacts and construct burial sites to handle each region’s wastes. The compacts then applied to Congress for ratification. Putting the Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act into effect was not easy. Some states formed compacts, particularly those that already had dump sites, but others delayed. In some areas, negotiations broke down as states consulted with others in several different regions, looking for the best deal. The situation in the Northeast, which generated 37 percent of the volume and 57 percent of the activity, was the worst. The situation gradually improved, however, and more cooperation was seen as the dangers of exposure to radioactive wastes through touching, breathing, or drinking became better understood. Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act (1980)[Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act]
Nuclear waste;legislation

Further Reading

  • Davis, Charles E., and James P. Lester, eds. Dimensions of Hazardous Waste Politics and Policy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. Provides a useful overview of U.S. policy concerning hazardous waste. Discusses problems related to hazardous wastes on international, national, state, and local levels.
  • Long, Robert Emmet, ed. The Problem of Waste Disposal. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1988. Presents a historical look at the difficulties inherent in waste disposal, drawing on the work of several environmental experts. Offers some suggestions for the improvement of waste management.
  • McCuen, Gary. Nuclear Waste: The Biggest Cleanup in History. Hudson, Wis.: G.E.M., 1990. Relates the history of the nuclear power industry and explains the problems caused by nuclear wastes.
  • Murray, Raymond L. Understanding Radioactive Waste. 5th ed. Columbus, Ohio: Battelle Press, 2003. Explains the nature of radioactive waste and provides suggestions for its management and disposal.
  • Riley, Peter. Nuclear Waste: Law, Policy, and Pragmatism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Examines laws and government policies concerning nuclear waste around the world. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.

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