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Tennessee Awaits Tons Of German Nuclear Waste

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Tennessee Awaits Tons Of German Nuclear Waste

National Security

Tennessee Awaits Tons Of German Nuclear Waste

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OK. Let's go now to Tennessee, where the city of Oak Ridge is anticipating the arrival of some 1,000 tons of nuclear waste from Germany. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a plan last month that will allow an American company to import and burn low-level nuclear waste from Germany.

This waste consists mostly of contaminated clothing and supplies from medical labs and research facilities. Any radioactive residue left over from the process is supposed to then be sent back to Germany for disposal.�

Opponents raise safety concerns about this plan and they also worry the United States will become the worlds processor of radioactive waste, but very little of that opposition is actually coming from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. From member station WUOT in Knoxville, Matt Shafer Powell has this report.

MATT SHAFER POWELL: As Tennessee towns go, Oak Ridge is a relative newcomer. Located just outside Knoxville, it was created from scratch in 1942 to help build the atomic bomb.

(Soundbite of a newsreel)

Unidentified Man: At Oak Ridge, Tennessee are two of the giant plants where the bomb is produced; a 59,000-acre military area, a city where 75,000 people worked in absolute secrecy on history's most sensational secret.

POWELL: In the years since that post-war newsreel was produced, Oak Ridge has become a world-renowned center for nuclear research. But operations here also generate a great deal of radioactive waste.

(Soundbite of an alarm and heavy equipment)

POWELL: This where some of that waste ends up at EnergySolutions' Bear Creek incinerator plant in Oak Ridge. On an asphalt lot between fences topped with razor wire, trucks rumble in and out of the plant, leaving behind giant dumpster-sized boxes full of low-level nuclear waste.

Mr. GREG LAWSON (Director, Project Management, EnergySolutions): This is definitely typical. It's in and out all day long. I don't know the average number of shipments in and out, but there's a lot going on every day.

POWELL: EnergySolutions' Greg Lawson says the plant has been safely burning low-level waste from Oak Ridge and other parts of the country for 20 years now. They've even imported waste from Canada and the U.K. before.

But a recent deal with a German company, to burn up to two million pounds of its waste, got the attention of environmental and watchdog groups. One such organization is the Local Oversight Committee in Oak Ridge; a collection of experts and residents who monitor nuclear activity in the area.

Director Susan Gawarecki says the committee hasn't decided yet whether it will oppose the plan. But she says the fact that it's foreign waste raises some questions.

Dr. SUSAN GAWARECKI (Executive Director, Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee, Inc.): When you're starting to talk about managing the rest of the world's waste, the German waste looks like the beginning of what could be a large flood of material from other countries.

POWELL: Don Safer of the Tennessee Environmental Council worries about the same thing. And after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, he's not ready to accept any of EnergySolutions' guarantees that the process is safe.

Mr. DON SAFER (Chairman, Board for the Tennessee Environmental Council): There's a lot of controversy in burning regular garbage, let alone radioactive garbage.

POWELL: What might be most baffling to Safer is the fact that Tennesseans don't seem too bothered by it, especially in Oak Ridge.

Mr. SAFER: I think first and foremost, Oak Ridge has been a company town for a long time and there's just a great reluctance to - and almost a social convention - that says you don't attack the company that feeds us all.

POWELL: Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson prefers to look at it from a different perspective. He says there are a lot of scientists and workers living in Oak Ridge who deal with radiation every day. As a result, they have a pretty sophisticated familiarity with it.

Mr. MARK WATSON (City Manager, Oak Ridge): There's a fear factor that may be missing from the folks that live here because we understand it a little bit better. And I think that we see some advantages for us as a community to be able to process that.

POWELL: EnergySolutions officials say they don't know when the first shipments of German waste will arrive in Oak Ridge, but it could be as early as this year. If opponents are hoping to derail the plan, they may not have much time.

For NPR News, Im Matt Shafer Powell in Knoxville.

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