Over 150 Community Groups Ask Congress to Cut High-Level Waste Budget Provisions

* More than 150 community groups nationwide submitted a letter to Congress this week requesting that provisions be removed from the proposed federal budget. These provisions would allow the Department of Energy (DOE) to leave high-level radioactive liquid waste underground at the Savannah River Site and would allow DOE to withhold cleanup funding from Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Idaho Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL).

The letter was distributed to all members of the U.S. Senate, who will begin discussing the proposed fiscal year 2005 Defense Authorization bill this week. The bill, which includes these provisions, allocates funding for weapons and defense facilities. These provisions were included in the bill by the Senate Arms Services Committee without public hearing.

The sections would overturn a decision made by the U.S. District Court in Idaho that restricts DOE from reclassifying high-level radioactive waste as lower level waste. Such a reclassification would allow DOE to leave the waste in their underground tanks rather than remove and dispose of it. Some of the waste has already begun to leak into groundwater in South Carolina, Washington State and Idaho. In the letter, the groups argued that the provisions would, "have serious and detrimental consequences for vital water resources in the country."

The letter was initiated by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, which is a national network of 33 community groups located downstream and downwind of nuclear weapons facilities. The letter was also signed by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the League of Conservation Voters, Public Citizen and the Union of Concerned Scientists. New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid and Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne have also expressed their opposition to the provisions.

Many New Mexican community groups are concerned because DOE has requested that the reclassified high-level waste at these facilities be permanently disposed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is not authorized to accept high-level waste. However, reclassification of the waste would allow DOE to dispose of high-level waste there.

Joni Arends, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a signatory of the letter, said, "The provisions would have severe consequences for all of the states involved, including New Mexico. Reclassification would mean that the waste that isn't left in the ground would be illegally transported and disposed at WIPP." DOE recently requested an extension of time to prepare for an upcoming hearing to prohibit high-level waste disposal at WIPP. The hearing is scheduled to be held in Santa Fe later this summer.

The provisions would also allow DOE to halt all cleanup at Hanford Nuclear Reservation and INEEL until the states of Idaho and Washington accept DOE's plan to reclassify the waste in their states. The letter states, "Both of the provisions would open the door to a rash of ... disputes for any nuclear waste crossing the South Carolina border, creating even more uncertainty regarding high-level waste disposal, [and would] have long-term, costly and potentially catastrophic environmental and public health risks and squash states' rights."

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