Revealed: Barrels of Radioactive Waste Stored for Years in Central Israel

The Volcani Center, located in the central Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, accumulated a large quantity of radioactive waste over a period of up to 15 years – hazardous material that should, by law, have been disposed of at the Negev Nuclear Research Center. Some of the waste comes from the phosphorus-32 isotope, which can lead to severe health problems. After an inspection by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Volcani Center was ordered to dispose of the waste at once – a process that took another four months. A Shomrim exposé

The Volcani Center, located in the central Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, accumulated a large quantity of radioactive waste over a period of up to 15 years – hazardous material that should, by law, have been disposed of at the Negev Nuclear Research Center. Some of the waste comes from the phosphorus-32 isotope, which can lead to severe health problems. After an inspection by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Volcani Center was ordered to dispose of the waste at once – a process that took another four months. A Shomrim exposé

The Volcani Center, located in the central Israeli city of Rishon Letzion, accumulated a large quantity of radioactive waste over a period of up to 15 years – hazardous material that should, by law, have been disposed of at the Negev Nuclear Research Center. Some of the waste comes from the phosphorus-32 isotope, which can lead to severe health problems. After an inspection by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Volcani Center was ordered to dispose of the waste at once – a process that took another four months. A Shomrim exposé

Uri Blau

Illustration: Shutterstock

September 8, 2022

Summary

T

he Volcani Center – the research arm of the Agriculture Ministry – stored 25 barrels of radioactive material at its Rishon Letzion campus. The material had been gathered for over 10 to 15 years, and, despite the potential risk of hazardous pollution in case of a fire or a leak, it was never removed from the site. The radioactive material was discovered during an inspection by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in May, and the Volcani Center was ordered to remove the material immediately. The barrels were due to be removed from the site on Thursday.

The Volcani Center is the largest agricultural research institute in Israel. It has a license to handle radioactive materials for various research projects, including the use of open radioactive source – radioactive materials that do not need to be sealed, can be accessed directly, and are quick to use. After use, these materials – such as test tubes that contained radioactive materials – are discarded as waste and placed in specially designed barrels, which are then transferred to what is supposed to be a temporary location designed to store such waste.

According to regulations, this waste material is supposed to be relocated to the Negev Nuclear Research Center. However, in violation of these regulations, it is now apparent that the Volcani Center did not transport its radioactive waste to the Negev and that, over a period believed to be between 10 and 15 years, dozens of barrels of radioactive material were accumulated at the Rishon Letzion campus.

Photo: Yigal Elad, Wikipedia

Shomrim has learned that the waste in question is the byproduct of the carbon-14, hydrogen-3, and phosphorus-32 isotopes. Although these isotopes are not particularly radioactive, exposure to them, especially phosphorus-32, is dangerous since they can enter the body through the skin or air and damage internal organs. The worksheet published by Yale University regarding the safe handling of phosphorus-32 mandates the use of plexiglass shields at least 1.25 cm thick while working with the material, as well as using double gloves, a lab coat, and safety glasses.

The fact that the waste material was not removed for at least a decade only came to light, as previously mentioned, during a Ministry of Environmental Protection inspection some four months ago, and the ministry ordered its immediate removal. Nonetheless, it took the Volcani Center many weeks to arrange the transportation of the barrels using an authorized carrier. During this hiatus, the center stated that “not burying these barrels would lead to dangerous contamination in the event of a fire.” The transportation of the barrels is supposed to be carried out by Rotem Industries, the only company in Israel authorized to do so.

‘Israel Has No Site for Radioactive Waste’

Text: The treatment of dangerous waste in Israel is currently regulated by the Licensing of Business Regulations (Disposal of Hazardous Substance Waste), passed in 1990. Last year, the Ministry of Environmental Protection published a draft of its own regulation for handling hazardous materials with the aim of updating the laws governing the disposal and treatment of such materials in Israel. “This update is necessary not only for Israel to live up to its obligations to the OECD regarding the handling of hazardous materials in Israel but also to implement the work done by a professional team of experts from the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which has been examining Israel’s policy on the matter,” it said in a statement at the time.

“The definition of hazardous materials in the existing regulations is outdated and expansive and does not meet the current norms in OECD member countries. Similarly, the definition differs from that stipulated in the Hazardous Materials Law (1993) and the regulations relating to the import and export of hazardous materials, including those stipulated in the addendum to the Hazardous Materials Law. The process of examining and classifying this waste material proposed in these regulations is based on accepted international principles and documents, primarily the European Union’s list of hazardous waste, as well as on standard inspection methods.”

Radioactive waste is buried, as already mentioned, at the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. Very little information has been published over the years about that site. Nonetheless, statements made to the Knesset in 1993 by then environment minister Yossi Sarid do hold some information. In response to a parliamentary question, Sarid confirmed that Israel’s nuclear waste is, indeed, buried in Dimona and that “Israel has no other site for nuclear waste.”

He added that “the suitability and adaptation of the site were examined by the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, under the supervision of the Committee for Nuclear Safety” and that “Israel does not dispose of its nuclear waste overseas. In certain cases, sealed radioactive sources, usually from hospitals, are returned to their country of origin once they have been used.”

Responses:

Ministry of Environmental Protection: “Appropriate Levels of Background Radiation were Measured in the Area” | The Volcani Center: “The Campus is in Order.”

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said in response: “During an inspection carried out by the Ministry of Environmental Protection at the Volcani Center, we found barrels containing various types of radioactive materials that the institute was licensed to use. As required by law, these barrels were found in a dedicated storage room. Tests carried out during the inspection revealed appropriate levels of background radiation in the area, and there was no danger of exposure to radiation to employees or civilians on the campus.

“When experts from the ministry spoke to the person in charge of radiation safety at the Volcani Center, it became clear that the barrels had been accumulated over the past 10 to 15 years. In accordance with the radiation license granted to the Volcani Center, it must dispose of any radioactive waste that is not in use. Therefore, the ministry demanded the immediate disposal of the radioactive waste at a dedicated site. The Volcani Center reported to the ministry that this will take place in the coming days.”

The Volcani Institute responded: “The Volcani Institute is legally allowed to handle radioactive materials or products containing radioactive materials, under the supervision of an authorized laboratory and the Ministry of Environmental Protection. One of the facilities included in this permit is a site for the storage of waste material, where it is acceptable to store the waste. This site meets all the criteria of the license. Every few years, waste material is disposed of at the Negev Nuclear Research Center in accordance with the current assessment of available storage space and justified disposal. The waste is stored in accordance with the regulation in specially designed metal barrels for radioactive waste, which are purchased from the Nuclear Research Center and which have special plastic liners inside them.

“Together with the authorized laboratory, a process of communication with the Nuclear Research Center was established in December 2021 to dispose of the existing waste. During the inspection conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection in May 2022, the ministry was updated about the disposal process, supported the decision, and said that the campus was safe. The imminent disposal of the materials was set for September 8.

“It is important to note that open radioactive materials used for research are, for the most part, isotopes with relatively short half-lives and, after six months, are no longer considered radioactive. In a tiny fraction of cases, use was made of isotopes with especially low radiation, which cannot even penetrate a piece of paper. In practice, most of the waste is no longer radioactive shortly after it is put in the barrel.

“Following a move to innovative analysis techniques, which do not require the use of isotopes, the volume of radioactive work with open sources is negligible, and the amount of waste produced is also negligible.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
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