Bid to dilute definition of radioactive wastes in the US

By Lopamudra Banerjee Dhar
Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

Dumping ground: highly radioac (Credit: Government Accountability Proj)a move is afoot in the us to soft-pedal on the issue of disposal of dangerous radioactive wastes. The us Senate recently approved a measure included in the Defense Authorisation Funding Bill that would allow the department of energy (doe) to reclassify lethal high-level radioactive waste in South Carolina as "waste incidental to reprocessing". This new step, which goes against the country's Nuclear Waste Policy Act (nwpa), would enable the doe to abandon millions of gallons of these wastes in leaking tanks in the state. It will also set an alarming precedent for similar nuclear waste cleanup sites in other states.

The senate gave its nod to the proposal on June 3 by rejecting an amendment to alter the language of the bill pertaining to the proposal. The particular section was written by the doe and added in the bill by South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham. Reacting sharply to the development, Karen Wayland, legislative director, Natural Resources Defense Council (nrdc), an environmental action organisation, said: "We're shocked that Senator Graham and some of his colleagues would sell their states down the river so the doe can avoid removing millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste from corroding tanks next to drinking water supplies."

The doe is responsible for cleaning up 253 massive underground tanks containing approximately 100 million gallons of liquid and sludge high-level waste (hlw) in Washington, Idaho, South Carolina and New York. Over a million gallons of hlw have already leaked from these storage tanks, threatening crucial water supplies.

What has perturbed environmentalists the most is that the proposal gives doe the chance to abandon high-level radioactive wastes in the four states under a layer of grout, even though their nature has not altered and they would remain dangerous for thousands of years. The sludge and wastes left behind would, in many cases, be the most radioactive materials in the tanks. doe's own figures show that eight per cent of the wastes at the bottom of the tanks in South Carolina contain more than half of the radioactivity.

Significantly, Graham's proposal would reverse a July 2003 ruling against the doe by an Idaho federal court. In a case brought and won by the nrdc, the court had ruled that the doe's proposal violated the nwpa. Through Graham's legislation, the doe is now working towards circumventing this court ruling, alleged nrdc. It is even threatening to withhold us $350 million from necessary environmental cleanup until Idaho and Washington officials agree to accept lower cleanup standards (read: Graham's proposal) that would be inadequate to protect water resources. While Washington's officials criticise the doe for failing to discuss the issue of water reclassification, Kyle McSlarrow, deputy energy secretary, says talks with the state would continue. Meanwhile, in a significant development, assistant energy secretary Jessie Roberson, who headed the cleanup programme, has resigned.

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