(CN) — Federal regulators are withdrawing a nuclear waste proposal that had prompted an unusually widespread chorus of opposition, including from those who worried the plan could have led to radioactive waste being shipped to local landfills across the U.S.
The proposal centered on what’s commonly referred to as “very low-level” waste, which includes things like contaminated construction debris or soil from shuttered nuclear power plants.
Under the plan, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have reinterpreted rules on that kind of waste so that disposal facilities without specific licenses to handle the waste could have taken it in anyways through an exception.
The proposal sparked a wave of pushback from an unlikely alliance of state regulators, environmental groups and even a prominent company in the business of nuclear waste management.
“We regret to find ourselves in such definitive opposition to an NRC staff proposal,” the Texas-based company Waste Control Specialists wrote in formal comments to regulators in July. “We are not accustomed to being in this position.”
In a notice released Wednesday, the regulators said they would abandon the plan after receiving more than 15,000 public comments, with the “vast majority” expressing opposition.
“The NRC staff assesses that the potential main benefit of the proposed interpretive rule — the potential for fewer regulatory approvals related to disposal at an authorized disposal site — would not outweigh the costs of implementing the proposed interpretive rule,” the notice states.
An NRC spokesperson said those costs refer to staff time the commission would have to spend on implementing the plan along with “agreement states” that would need to be brought on board, not to any alleged environmental costs.
“We have strongly disputed the argument by various groups who misrepresented the proposal as deregulation of radioactive waste disposal,” spokesperson David McIntyre said. “This would not have changed anything, just made an existing case-by-case approval process more efficient.”
Critics had urged the commission to abandon the plan for a variety of reasons, ranging from environmental fears to concerns about how reinterpreting rules could logistically complicate nuclear waste management at the state level.
In August, an official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told Courthouse News the agency was opposed to the plan because it would “change everything about the way we do business in Texas.”
“We don’t see a need for change at this point,” said Ashley Forbes, deputy director of the agency’s radioactive materials division.
A TCEQ spokesperson said the agency had no comment on the plan being withdrawn.
In the notice Wednesday, federal regulators outlined the feedback they had received. Some commenters said the NRC should have launched a more thorough process for making new rules instead of simply trying to reinterpret existing rules, while others said the plan should have included a process where the public could help decide whether nuclear waste would be allowed at a particular disposal site.
Other changes to how the nation deals with the “very low-level” subset of nuclear waste could still be announced down the road. The NRC is in the midst of a years-long “scoping study” on the issue, in which regulators are exploring options for handling what is likely to be a sizable increase in nuclear waste in the years ahead as more and more nuclear power plants shut down.
“The staff will continue to monitor the external environment and seek innovations in the low-level waste regulatory program,” the NRC said in the notice Wednesday.