This Date in UCSF History: Radioactive Waste Piles Up While Dump is Debated

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Originally published on March 13, 1997. A nationwide absence of radioactive waste disposal facilities has created a dramatic increase in the cost of radioisotope usage that is being felt strongly al UCSF.

Until a legitimate site for waste disposal is established, UCSF and other academic and industrial users of radioactivity are forced to store the waste themselves. Because UCSF lacks the space to do this, il must contract with local vendors who store the waste for a fee. This campus is “absolutely out of space,” says Ara Tahmassian, PhD, the Director of Environmental Health and Safety at UCSF.

The costs of waste storage arc taken directly out of research grants, increasing the overall cost of doing research. Perhaps not coincidentally, the use of isotopes at UCSF has declined over the past several years, according to Tahmassian.

Approximately 7,000 cubic feet of radioactive waste, resulting from the use of more than 100 curies of radioactivity, is generated at UCSF each year.

While most of this is employed for clinical purposes, the majority of the waste is generated by research applications; much of the medically-used radioactivity is administered to patients and does not end up as waste that is subject to regulation.

In contrast, radioactivity used in research generates large volumes of waste in the form of paper, plasticware, and liquid.

Because the cost of waste storage is determined by volume rather than degree of radioactivity, research applications determine the bulk of the cost of isotope usage.

The waste generated on campus is divided into three classes based on the half-life of the isotope used, or the length of time required for the radioactivity to decline to safe levels. Isotopes with a half-life of less than 15 days are stored on campus for the several months required for their disposal as non-radioactive waste.

Those isotopes with a half-life of between 15 and 90 days are not stored on campus but are sent to local companies that store the waste until it can be safely disposed of. It is the third class of waste, resulting from isotopes with a half-life of greater than 90 days, that is now presenting a problem. This waste requires many years to decay to safe levels and is thus considered “non-decay-able waste.”

In the past, non-decayable waste was sent to Hanford, Washington, for permanent disposal. But Hanford is now closed and no longer accepts radioactive waste. The last shipment from UCSF to Hanford was around Thanksgiving, 1993. The closure of Hanford leaves UCSF with no viable option for permanent waste disposal in the U.S. Bondwell, South Carolina, a site that was slated to close a couple of years ago, still accepts waste, but is known to have significant contamination problems.

In addition to a significant upfront fee for waste disposal there, Bondwell also requires an acknowledgment of the potential for future liability if the site turns out to require decontamination.

As with the cost of isotope disposal or storage, such liability would be passed on to researchers. Because UCSF would like to remain free of any such liability, it is not currently sending any waste to Bondwell, according to Tahmassian.

Instead, UCSF sends its non-decayable waste to local vendors, who arc storing the waste temporarily until a permanent disposal site can be established.

This additional storage is the primary cause of the current cost increase associated with isotope usage. Private companies will accept waste for incineration, which reduces the volume of the waste and thus reduces the cost of storage.

But this process itself is not cheap, and does not dramatically reduce the overall cost of storage and ultimate disposal.

A potential future site for permanent waste disposal is Ward Valley, California, in the Mojave Desert. But the destiny of Ward Valley is uncertain, as a decade-long environmental battle over its safety is delaying and may ultimately derail plans for its use as a disposal site.

Ward Valley was about to open two years ago, when contamination problems were discovered al a similar site in Beatty, Nevada.

Because the apparent safety of the Beatty site had been used as a justification for the Ward Valley site, these new-found problems reopened nearly-settled environmental questions. These questions have generated a political battle that continues to this day.

One potential resolution of the conflict, at least for users of isotopes like UCSF, is for Ward Valley to be designated exclusively for research and medical waste disposal, but not for the larger-scale waste of the nuclear power industry as originally intended. But this compromise is far from certain.

Although the “technical and scientific issues have been settled,” Ward Valley is now a political issue, and therefore we “can’t predict what will happen,” Tahmassian said. “Deep down, I don’t know.”

Another possible additional future cost of isotope usage results from the generation of the isotopes themselves, because even the manufacturing of isotopes with short half-lives involves the production of byproducts with longer half-lives.

These byproducts must also be disposed of in permanent sites, and thus the current dearth of disposal sites may drive up the cost of all radioisotopes. While the future remains uncertain, for now things appear to have stabilized.

“The urgency of the situation depends on your point of view,” said Tahmassian.

For the university, waste can be removed and stored until a long-term solution can be found. For researchers, however, who are bearing the brunt of the increased cost of isotope usage, the situation may feel more desperate.