NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A new contract to process 1,000 tons of nuclear waste from Germany has environmental activists concerned that the town of Oak Ridge, Tenn., could become a prime destination for the world's nuclear trash.
The city in east Tennessee was founded by scientists who were developing the atomic bomb during World War II. It continues to be a center for the nuclear industry.
It has processed nuclear waste for decades, including some from Britain and Canada. But the large German contract, its first from continental Europe, marks a significant expansion and has raised eyebrows.
"With current regulatory conditions, there is nothing stopping really great quantities of radioactive waste materials from coming from all over the world to be processed in Tennessee," says Don Safer, chairman of the board of the Tennessee Environmental Council, said on Tuesday.
The expansion comes at a time of heightened global concern about nuclear energy after the earthquake and the radioactive releases from damaged reactors in Japan. Since the Japan earthquake, Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear power industry by 2022 because of concerns about safety.
The company that processes the nuclear waste, Utah-based EnergySolutions LLC, said that under the German contract it will process residue from hospitals mainly by shrinking the volume a factor of 200-to-1, and then sending it back to Germany. The residue will begin arriving later this year, said Mark Walker, vice president of marketing and media relations for EnergySolutions in Salt Lake City.
"What people don't understand is that we are talking about the kind of products and waste materials that you find in your doctor's office. It's not high risk," said Parker Hardy, president of the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce.
Initial fears about the project were allayed by briefings with EnergySolutions and a visit to the incinerators, said Oak Ridge city manager Mark Watson.
"What we are talking about is we aren't melting down heavy metals here," he said.
But Safer said that even people who are in favor of nuclear power should question importing foreign nuclear waste to a state which he said puts "very little scrutiny" on the industry.
(Editing by Greg McCune)