Ionising radiation, Legislation, Permitting, Radioactivity, Waste management

“Dear Aunty, did flowback waste really contain radioactivity at 90 times the ‘maximum limit’ in Lancashire?”

Local Defend Lytham campaigner, Mike Hill, has made this statement numerous times in the last year: on his Twitter feed, including very recently here; at this event in Brussels; and in the May edition of Resource Magazine, where he is quoted as saying “It had … radium 226 at 90 times the EA’s maximum permissible limit of 1 Becquerel per litre.”.

He’s very convincing when he says it in Brussels (starting 18 minutes in “…the water coming back up the well had 90 Bq/l in it, the max limit allowed in the UK is 1 Bq/l which I suspect is probably an EU limit”) and I notice that a lot of other people opposed to fracking for shale gas have repeated it. Is he right?

The simple answer, cherubs, is no.

You see, there is no such maximum limit specified anywhere. When challenged on this claim, the best that Mr Hill could produce was this tweet.

Guidance, whilst very useful, simply helps to interpret the law. To verify whether Mr Hill’s claim is accurate, we need to look at the underlying regulations themselves and, in this case, that’s the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011. These introduce a replacement to Schedule 23 of the 2010 regulations.

First, darlings, we look at Part 2 on Interpretation.

Here, we see “waste” is construed in accordance with paragraph 3(1) and 3(2). To be “Radioactive waste” it must satisfy the requirements of paragraphs 4, 5 or 6.

Paragraph 4 is the one that’s relevant to this discussion, sweeties, on NORM industrial activities (sorry, but you have to go back to paragraph 2 for the definitions of NORM industrial activities).

Paragraph 4(2) is the one we need:

“(2) A substance or article to which this sub-paragraph applies is radioactive material or radioactive waste where it has a concentration of radioactivity which exceeds the following values in Table 1—

(a)for a substance or article which is a solid or a substance which is a relevant liquid, the value specified in column 2;
(b)for a substance which is any other liquid, the value specified in column 3; or
(c)for a substance which is a gas, the value specified in column 4.”

Are you with me so far pumpkins?

Column 3 of Table 1 specifies a value of 1 Becquerel per litre (1 Bq/l) for a liquid containing the radionuclide Radium 226 (or Ra-226).

So, what does all this legal mumbo-jumbo all mean in this case, and why is it relevant to this discussion dears?

Well, it’s telling us that a liquid waste containing a concentration of Ra-226 that exceeds 1 Bq/l and when arising from a NORM industrial activity, is to be defined as a radioactive waste.

And that’s it. It’s simply about defining the waste as radioactive waste in order to determine whether the remaining provisions of the regulations apply.

For the avoidance of any doubt then, the 1 Bq/l is CATEGORICALLY NOT A MAXIMUM LIMIT, as repeatedly stated by Mr Hill and others.

In practical terms, sweeties, the presence of Ra-226 at a concentration above the 1 Bq/l threshold simply means that an operator conducting a relevant NORM industrial activity will need to obtain an environmental permit to accumulate and dispose of radioactive waste.

In the case of Cuadrilla in Lancashire, the Environment Agency sampled the flowback waste on a number of occasions and, in one sample, reportedly found Ra-226 at 90 Bq/l.

This might well be 90 times higher than the threshold above which a waste must be defined as radioactive, but that’s all.

(Incidentally, dears, the other three sample results obtained were 14 Bq/l, 16 Bq/l and 17 Bq/l for Ra-226).

So, is Mr Hill correct when he says that the Lancashire flowback waste contained NORM at 90 times the maximum level? Well, quite evidently not darlings.

Why, then, does he continue to repeat this statement? Is it because he’s relying solely on research by Freedom of Information requests? Is it because he’s relying too heavily on simplified guidance? Is it because he lacks the experience of navigating around and interpreting complex legal texts? Or is it to try and create the false impression that flowback waste in Lancashire contained scarily high levels of radioactivity that breach the ‘maximum limit’ by as much as 90 times?

It’s not for me to say my loves. All I’m interested in is a factual representation on this matter.

So, perhaps it would be more appropriate for Mr Hill to simply say in future “Flowback waste in Lancashire was found to contain naturally occurring radionuclides at a concentration that defines it as radioactive waste, and requires it to be managed within the environmental permitting regime”

Not quite as catchy, I know, but much more representative of the truth pumpkins.

Until next time xxx

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