Friday, May 7, 2004
Senate bill raises worries about Hanford waste
By SHANNON DININNY
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
YAKIMA, Wash. -- A U.S. Senate committee's approval of legislation that would allow the Energy Department to reclassify high-level nuclear waste in South Carolina concerns officials in Washington state who have been fighting the same move at the Hanford nuclear site.
The department has been pushing members of Congress to change the Nuclear Waste Policy Act since a federal judge in Idaho last year ruled that reclassifying thousands of gallons of highly radioactive sludge as low-level waste violated the law.
A Senate committee announced Friday it had approved changes in the law that will allow the Energy Department to avoid removing the sludge from tanks at the Savannah River nuclear site in South Carolina.
Energy Department officials expressed hope the change might also help them reach agreement with Washington and Idaho officials.
But officials in Washington state raised concerns the legislation might allow the department to reclassify waste in Hanford's aging and leaking underground tanks, which hold about 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste from World War II and Cold War era plutonium production.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called the legislation a "divide-and-conquer" strategy that would be a major step backward in national efforts to clean up high-level nuclear waste.
"This legislation turns 30 years of law on its head for one region of the country without a single legislative hearing in the traditional committee of jurisdiction, just to overturn a court ruling this administration doesn't like," Cantwell said in a news release.
"We can't pretend that changing the rules for one state won't have an impact on the others," Cantwell said.
The Energy Department plans to siphon out the highly radioactive liquid waste in the tanks, but claims the residual sludge is too expensive to extract. Instead, the department has proposed reclassifying it as low-level waste, encasing it in a mortar-like grout, then filling the tanks with concrete and leaving them in place.
Washington state joined Oregon, Idaho, South Carolina, New Mexico and New York in filing a "friend of the court" brief to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to uphold the Idaho judge's decision.
Earlier this week, Gov. Gary Locke said legislative language that allows the Energy Department to unilaterally reinterpret cleanup agreements is unacceptable and threatens the long-term health of citizens and the environment.
"Current law does not allow, and Congress should not sanction, DOE's claimed authority to unilaterally redefine what is high-level waste, and what is not," Locke said in a letter to ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which approved the language Friday.
Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow said Friday the Energy Department has engaged in good faith negotiations with Idaho and Washington to arrive at a solution so that cleanup can progress.
"We have several important issues to resolve and we look forward to continuing our discussions so that we can devise a solution that will work for these other states as well," McSlarrow said in a news release.