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Here's Why North Dakota Wants to Allow 10X More Potent Radioactive Waste into Its Dumps

North Dakota is increasing its radioactive landfill limits to handle the heavy industry driving its economy

North Dakota is increasing its radioactive landfill limits to handle the heavy industry driving its economy

North Dakota is in the middle of a push to increase the level of naturally occurring (non-nuclear and medical) radioactive material allowed in its industrial landfills from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram.

At first it seems easy to shake your head and tsk-tsk the prosperous, newly minted energy giant for selling out its environment, but the North Dakota Department of Health actually makes a pretty compelling case for raising restrictions on dumping the low-level radioactive material known as TENORM. See also: North Dakota Tries to Market Itself as a Hookup Haven, Fails

Scott Radig, director of waste management for North Dakota's Department of Health, said between 30 and 70 tons of TENORM is created every year by the state's new oil and gas operations and pretty much all of it gets shipped out of the state.

"With the amount of this type of waste material produced since the oil boom started, we feel the responsible thing to do is to handle at least a fair portion of what we generate within our state and do it in an environmentally safe manner," he said.

Currently the TENORM (Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material) is shipped out to states that don't have limits, or have higher limits. Minnesota's limit is 30 picocuries, according to this chart provided by the North Dakota Department of Health.

"This material is all going to landfills outside of North Dakota, and some of the landfills it's going to are constructed exactly the same as the landfills we have in North Dakota," said Radig.

North Dakota commissioned a year-long study from Argonne National Laboratory to find what the highest limit allowable level of TENORM would be while still maintaining landfill workers' safety. The number Argonne came away with was 51.6 picocuries per gram, so the state rounded down to 50 picocuries per gram.

Radig said TENORM would only be allowed in the state's 10 industrial landfills, although there are several applications pending to build more. The landfills are outfitted with constructed double liners, a leachgate collection system, and groundwater monitoring network.

"It's not just a hole in the ground where we dump it in and bury it," he said.

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