Monday, June 6, 2005

Nuclear War

RACE lacks city permits to run its incinerator, and activist groups hope to keep it that way.

Posted By on Mon, Jun 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The radioactive waste incinerator on Presidents Island is about the size of two 55-gallon drums. Or as Radiological Assistance, Consulting, and Engineering (RACE) Center president Bob Applebaum describes it, “the size of a large barbecue smoker at Memphis in May.” On a recent tour of the facility, Applebaum told the Flyer the incinerator is 90 percent complete.

But after residents who live nearby began protesting the proposed incinerator, the Office of Code Enforcement said that RACE didn’t have the necessaary city special use permit. In fact, it turned out that RACE didn’t even have an occupancy permit from the city for its Presidents Island location.

Both permit issues will go before the Land Use Control Board on Thursday, June 9th. RACE also has applied for a permit to store radioactive material at a location on Trigg Avenue.

“We didn’t realize we needed a special use permit,” Applebaum says.

RACE, which specializes in reducing the volume of radioactive waste for disposal, has been working on securing the proper licenses for the incinerator from the state and county since 2003. The company now holds a construction permit for the incinerator from the Shelby County Health Department and an operations permit from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

In an article for the Downtown Neighborhood Association’s newsletter, city councilman Myron Lowery wrote that he was concerned that a company that couldn’t figure out which permits it needed is planning to operate a nuclear waste incinerator.

“I don’t see how it could have gone on this long without them knowing they needed a special use permit,” Lowry wrote.

Since the news of RACE’s proposed installation broke in February, activist groups have formed to fight the incinerator, which RACE claims will be used solely to burn low-level radioactive waste, such as carcasses of research animals and hospital waste.

Members of the Riverview Collaborative, the Sierra Club, and Memphis Truth worry about long-term damage as radioactive particles from the incinerator escape into the air.

“There are several food-processing plants on the island, and my fear is that if the ash escapes, it would contaminate the food,” says Kelly Fitzpatrick, founder of Memphis Truth, a group formed to fight the incinerator. Already, Memphis Truth has hired attorneys Saul Belz and Rich Fields, who are both experienced in activist issues, to look into possible action against the company if the Land Use Control Board and the City Council approve RACE’s permits. The group operates a Web site,, which features links to informational sites on nuclear waste.

Members of the Riverview Collaborative represent the largely African-American Riverview neighborhood in South Memphis located close to Presidents Island.

“We’re worried that the constant output of radioactive material in the air could cause health problems, maybe short-term, maybe long-term,” says the Rev. Ralph White, pastor of Bloomfield Baptist Church and leader of the Riverview group.

Applebaum says these concerns are unfounded because the level of radiation released will be so low. “You’re exposed to about 350 millirems [of radiation] each year from naturally-occuring radon gas,” he says, adding that the air released from the incinerator is “scrubbed clean” while in the machine.

Sitting in RACE’s boardroom, Applebaum picks up a small test tube filled with a white powdery substance labeled “Radiation.” He pours some on the table and runs an instrument over it to measure the radiation. It begins beeping rapidly. Applebaum picks up a pinch of the powder and drops it on his tongue.

Then, sarcastically, he says, “There’s no way! You’ll die!”

He says the substance is Nu-Salt, a salt substitute that contains potassium chloride. Potassium is naturally radioactive.

But the activist groups aren’t buying it. Applebaum says he offered to let the Riverview group tour the RACE facility, but they declined the offer.

“They’re already operating out of compliance, and they’ve been cited several times [for labeling and storage issues],” White says. “We are just not for it, and no tour will change our minds.”

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