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energy & nuclear | environment

Nuclear waste/Best plan: No dregs left behind

We should not leave any high-level nuclear waste in underground tanks at DOE sites, including Hanford.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
June 1, 2004

Editorial: Nuclear waste/Best plan: No dregs left behind

When the U.S. Senate reconvenes today, one of the first issues it is to address is a significant change in the way this nation handles its worst nuclear waste. Senators should not hesitate to reject this ill-advised move.

The waste in question is the mostly liquid byproduct of plutonium processing at U.S. weapons plants. Much of it has been collected for temporary storage in tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the Savannah River facility in South Carolina and the former Idaho National Nuclear Laboratory, now known as INEEL. The ultimate plan is to seal it in glass logs for permanent storage in the vault now planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Deteriorating tanks have begun to leak in Washington and South Carolina, threatening serious contamination of the Columbia and Savannah rivers; INEEL sits atop an aquifer that recharges the Snake River in dry spells. Understandably, the Department of Energy is interested in speeding the cleanup process at all three sites. Incredibly, it has proposed to do so by simply reclassifying some waste so it can be left right where it is.

In essence, DOE proposes to extract and encase as much waste as it deems reasonable, then cover the dregs with concrete. It's possible that some solution along these lines might make sense. But as Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., points out, its proponents have failed to provide enough details -- such as the volume of material to be left behind -- to permit an independent scientific review. Moreover, the nature of this waste is such that radioactivity is especially concentrated in the residues.

Having failed to negotiate a deal with Cantwell and other like-minded officials, DOE obtained an executive order allowing it to unilaterally reclassify high-level waste at the three repositories, in effect exempting it from the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and to withhold cleanup funds from their states if they refused to comply. That effort was struck down in federal court.

Now the department quietly attached equivalent provisions to the defense appropriations bill; they are to be voted on as early as today. Cantwell and allies have succeeded in removing Hanford and INEEL from its provisions, and expect they can strip the language permitting fiscal punishment of uncooperative states.

But Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., insists on letting his state and the Energy Department cut their own deal on Savannah River (to the consternation of other South Carolinians, including his Democratic colleague, Sen. Fritz Hollings). His arguments are that, first, the cleanup process will be much quicker and cheaper if some waste can be left behind, and, second, that South Carolinians ought to be able to decide what's best for South Carolina.

Quicker and cheaper can be valid considerations in planning a pollution cleanup, even when the pollutant is concentrated nuclear waste -- but only after the highest level of safety has been guaranteed. And those guarantees must satisfy national standards, not the terms of a side deal.

The idea that U.S. policies on nuclear waste ought to be subject to local-option exemptions is a perennial complication of a process that is already complex enough. In the short run, Graham's accommodation of the Energy Department's new agenda is a bad idea for South Carolina (and Georgia, which shares the Savannah River). It would also set a troubling precedent for waste handling in other states, beginning with Washington and Idaho, but conceivably extending to every other state with nuclear waste, military or civilian, in temporary storage. If shortcuts can be taken at Savannah River, why not Prairie Island?

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