Dirty diapers and moldy food aren't the only nasty things in Memphis landfills.
Low-level nuclear waste sits alongside household trash, old tires, and other items, and that won't be changing anytime soon thanks to a recent decision by the Tennessee General Assembly.
Last Wednesday, the Senate Environment, Conservation, and Tourism Committee killed a bill that would prohibit dumping low-level nuclear waste into landfills. That means the state will continue its Bulk Survey For Release Program, which allows and regulates the disposal of low-level nuclear waste in Tennessee landfills.
Two of the four Tennessee landfills currently accepting low-level nuclear materials are in Memphis.
The bill, which was co-sponsored by Senator Beverly Marrero of Memphis and Representative Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, was voted down based on a 2007 Tennessee Municipal Solid Waste Advisory Committee report that determined the danger of low-level nuclear waste in landfills to be insignificant.
"This is being allowed, and people don't really have a good sense about what's going on," said Rita Harris, environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club's Memphis chapter. "Most people think it's a minute amount. ... If you've got millions of pounds of waste going into the ground, when does that become significant?"
The North and South Shelby County Municipal Landfills received nearly two million pounds of radiated waste in 2009, more than one million in 2008, and nearly 2.5 million in 2007, according to the most recent figures available from the Tennessee Division of Radiological Health.
Nuclear waste includes items that have been contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That can include items ranging from debris, soil, or construction material from a nuclear plant to nuclear reactor hardware.
Studsvik, Inc., an international company with a facility on Presidents Island, offers radioactive waste treatment services to nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities. A company spokesperson said Studsvik is pleased Marrero's bill wasn't approved.
"The committee's action reaffirms the Municipal Solid Waste Advisory Committee's findings back in 2007. Tennessee's Bulk Survey for Release Program is a well-regulated and safe program," reads a company statement following the bill's defeat.
But Harris said there are significant problems with disposal of radioactive materials in landfills.
"These landfills were built for household waste, not radioactive waste," Harris said. "They've got polyethylene liners, but there can be breakages. ... It's scary."
"'Low-level' radioactive waste ... is not always 'low-risk,'" reads Marrero's recent bill. "Federal regulatory agencies are once again moving to generically deregulate some man-made, so-called 'low-level' radioactive waste, and such deregulation could result in dissemination and release into air, water, commercial recycling systems, land disposal sites, incinerators, sewage systems, consumer products, and other parts of the environment and food chain."
Tennessee is one of only a few states that allow the dumping of nuclear waste into landfills. It's the only state that allows companies to operate under a single license rather than seek government approval for each shipment of waste deposited in landfills.
"It's the Tennessee loophole," Harris said. "We don't want [low-level nuclear waste] in our landfills. It's not the proper place for it."