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energy & nuclear

Senate vote on nuclear tank waste delayed until after Memorial Day

U.S. Dept. of Energy wants to leave high-level nuclear waste in underground tanks in Washington state (Hanford), Idaho and South Carolina.
Magic Valley Times-News
May 23, 2004

Fight over plutonium wastes stalls defense bill

The Times-News and The Associated Press

TWIN FALLS -- A Bush administration plan to cover nearly 1 million gallons of highly radioactive sludge with grout has run into obstacles in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats say grout is for bathrooms, not leftovers from Cold War weapons.

And the administration's efforts to withhold nuclear cleanup funds from Idaho and Washington unless they agree to keep the same kind of waste has been thwarted in the House. Late last week it unanimously passed a defense bill amendment that restores $50 million in cleanup funding.

"With the passage of this amendment and some additional money in the appropriations process, I am confident Congress will fully fund Idaho's cleanup needs. I am also pleased the House language removes the DOE restrictions placed on Idaho's cleanup funding because of the ongoing dispute over the treatment of high-level waste," Congressman Mike Simpson said in a prepared statement.

The Senate defense bill allows the Energy Department to leave radioactive sludge in underground tanks at a federal site in South Carolina. The tanks would be filled in with grout or cement.

The bill withholds $94 million in cleanup money for Idaho, because the state wouldn't allow for the same provision here. Staffers for Idaho Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo say restoring the funding is critical.

Combined there are nearly 90 million gallons of sludge in underground tanks in Idaho, South Carolina and Washington. Energy Department officials argue that 1 percent of the tank waste -- residual sludge adhering to the bottom and sides of the tank -- would be extremely expensive to remove.

There are 900,000 gallons of liquid waste from spent nuclear fuel reprocessing left in tanks at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls. Should the tanks leak, they could threaten the regional aquifer below that supplies water to much of southern Idaho and feeds the Snake River. The Energy Department says all but less than 1 percent will be removed before grout was added.

But unless the department can orchestrate legal changes, all tank wastes and residuals must be removed. That could mean digging up the tanks and shipping them to a deep, underground geologic repository.

The department's efforts have been stalled every step of the way, including in federal court in Idaho, as states and activists have complained that the department is working around agreements with states to ease cleanup requirements.

The Energy Department contends its plan would shorten cleanup by years, save billions and protect the environment.

"For most Americans grout is something they see in their bathrooms and not something used to deal with nuclear waste," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. "I do not believe you can grout over it, put sand in a tank and say we've cleaned up the waste."

Senators debated her amendment removing the South Carolina provision, but a vote was delayed until after Memorial Day.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who added the South Carolina language during a closed meeting, said the state will have final say in assuring that cleanup meets state water regulations. He argued some of the sludge should not have been viewed as high-level waste and that reclassifying it would save $16 billion and shorten tank cleanup at the Savannah River facility near Aiken, S.C., by 23 years.

That didn't satisfy South Carolina's other senator. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., predicted environmental disaster if the waste leaks into the nearby Savannah River.

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