DOE Secretary Abraham Attempts to Overturn High-level Waste Decision

* In a letter to Illinois Representative and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert recently, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham proposed that congress enact a new definition of high-level waste that would allow DOE to ship it to transuranic or low-level waste repositories, or leave it onsite rather than dispose it in a high-level waste repository as existing law requires. As part of DOE's accelerated cleanup program, Abraham requested that Hastert introduce legislation that would allow DOE to decide the threat that a particular waste poses. Abraham's letter to Hastert says, "This strategy fundamentally assumes that DOE, in consultation with the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission], has the authority to manage and dispose of different ... wastes according to the risks they present." However, a federal court ruled otherwise in a lawsuit recently brought by activists and sovereign tribal nations to enforce the existing law.

High-level nuclear waste is that which is created as a result of spent fuel reprocessing in nuclear reactors. Such waste would be shipped to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Transuranic waste is plutonium-contaminated waste that is currently shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Low-level waste is that which is created as a result of weapons production and cleanup activities. It is currently shipped to the Nevada Test Site, or stored onsite at facilities like Area G at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The major hurdle that DOE has faced in its recent cleanup efforts is the millions of gallons of high-level waste stored in large tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington, Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which contain a mixture of liquid waste and sludge. DOE would prefer to leave as much as possible in the tanks. Legislation proposed by DOE would classify this waste as "incidental" waste, rather than high-level, which means that DOE could dilute and leave these millions of gallons of extremely radioactive wastes onsite.

DOE argues that this strategy will save time and money, as well as ensure that Yucca Mountain not be overburdened by excess waste. However, it was concluded in the 2002 Congressional debates on Yucca Mountain that waste bound for the facility will exceed its capacity nevertheless. Furthermore, DOE did not consider the effects that such a plan would have on the environmental well being of the areas in which the radioactive sludge would remain, all three of which border major rivers or aquifers.

A federal court ruled that DOE does not have the discretion to dispose of this waste anywhere other than a repository established for high-level waste. In a statement in reply to Abraham's letter, the states of Idaho, Washington and South Carolina said, "What the court rejected was giving DOE free rein to override national policy."

In its own letter to Hastert, the plaintiff's attorneys at the Natural Resources Defense Council said, "The precise principle underlying the Court's ruling is quite clear ... Congress plainly directed that in order to protect public health, [high-level waste] must be disposed of in a repository, not abandoned in leaking and corroding tanks."

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