Accelerated Waste Cleanup Plans Questioned

Epidemiologist Dr. Alice Stewart Dies

Senators and several state officials testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this month that the Department of Energy (or DOE) plan to accelerate cleanup of nuclear weapons waste around the country may leave sites contaminated. The accelerated cleanup plan was introduced by the Bush administration earlier this year in order to cut cleanup costs and hasten the process. DOE Secretary Abraham proposes to take $800 million from the $6.7 billion annual cleanup budget and offer incentives to DOE sites that agree to quicker cleanup. Some decisionmakers and activists are concerned that the money would also be an incentive to relax cleanup standards, in an effort to move the waste more quickly.

Jesse Roberson, head of DOE Environmental Management, claims that DOE has no intention of relaxing cleanup standards. However, Washington state's attorney general Christine Gregoire says that there is evidence that DOE intends to reclassify waste at Hanford reservation, which would allow DOE to leave it buried on-site instead of removing it. Currently, there are 177 underground tanks at Hanford that contain high-level radioactive waste, much of which is not classified and may be leaking, thus endangering the nearby Columbia River. Former DOE plans indicated that 99% of the waste would be removed and then sent to two factories to be solidified into glass. However, Gregoire claims that DOE's plans have been amended, and only one factory is underway, indicating that less waste will be removed. Roberson said that DOE will remove as much waste as is feasible, but refused to offer a new percentage. The Natural Resources Defense Council is arguing before a federal court that reclassifying the waste would be a violation of federal law that mandates that nuclear weapons reprocessing waste be classified as high-level.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Pete Maggiore said that, while the accelerated cleanup program will mean more cleanup money for Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, it does not mean less cleanup, although he admitted that he is uncertain.

*Dr. Alice Stewart, epidemiologist and pioneer in the study of radiation and human health, passed away on June 23rd at age 95. She was born in Sheffield, England, and received her medical degree from Cambridge University. Throughout her career, Dr. Stewart was focused on public health and childhood cancer and gained a reputation as a brilliant teacher and clinician.

Dr. Stewart's breakthrough study began when she noticed that childhood leukemia rates in England were abnormally high, and she distributed a questionnaire among mothers whose children had died of cancer before the age of four between the years 1953 and 1955. She found that a single diagnostic x-ray could nearly double the risk of early cancer. The medical community, enamored of nuclear technology at the time, ostracized Dr. Stewart and she never received a research grant in England again. She later participated in a study that exposed the high risk to radiation workers at Hanford that inspired Congressional hearings in 1978 and '79.

In 1986, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, called the Alternative Nobel, which honors those who have made a difference for the betterment of society.

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