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Every year, 41 million pounds of low level radioactive waste is incinerated in a small town in east Tennessee.  Oak Ridge, a town where nearly 10% of the population lives below the poverty line, has been the dumping grounds for America’s radioactive waste for more than 50 years.  Now, the small town will not only see the incineration of the nation’s low level radioactive waste, but also 1,000 tons of Germany’s.
After seeking approval for nearly two years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted EnergySolutions the right to ship in the waste from Germany.  EnergySolutions, who has been operating in Tennessee for more than 20 years, will drive the waste through Virginia and burn it in Oak Ridge.  The resulting ash is a highly concentrated form of low level radioactive waste that mostly will be shipped back to Germany for disposal.
Oak Ridge’s radioactive history has earned it the nickname as America’s “Atomic City.”   In 1942, the U.S. government chose the town to build materials for the Manhattan Project which led to America’s successful creation of the first atomic bomb.  Ever since, Oak Ridge has served as the hub of the nuclear industry's activity.  In addition to multiple radioactive waste processing companies, Oak Ridge also houses a major office of the Department of Energy.
“Low level [radioactive waste] does not mean low risk” says Don Safer, chairman of the board for the Tennessee Environmental Council.  The industry considers everything to be low level except spent fuel rods and materials remaining after spent fuel rods have been reprocessed to be used as fuel again.  Contaminated clothing, mops, filters, reactors, medical tubes, syringes and laboratory animal carcasses.
In Tennessee, this low level waste is allowed to be dumped in municipal landfills along with household garbage. “They operate under an honor system…They have radiation devices outside. If it triggers, they will reject it but no one actually goes into the load to make sure there’s been no illegal violation of the rules” says Safer.
Despite pressure from local residents, no official health impact studies have been conducted by the state.  "It’s a cover up…Its really pitiful how that type of health information is not available" says Safer.  Now that the U.S. has allowed Germany to bring its waste, Tennessee residents fear it will open the flood gates for waste from the rest of the world.

Photo courtesy of Ed Clark

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