Friday, June 4, 2004
WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday gave the Energy Department permission to weaken cleanup standards at a South Carolina nuclear weapons plant, triggering bitter denunciations from Washington state's two senators, who fear the looser standards could also be applied at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The new policy fell into place after the Senate rejected an amendment by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that would have killed a provision that allows the Energy Department to reclassify millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste into a less dangerous classification. The 48-48 vote capped four hours of pointed debate.
If the same language is adopted by the House, it will allow the Energy Department to mix millions of gallons of intensely radioactive sludge with concrete and leave it in the bottom of 51 underground tanks at the Savannah River Site. This would be done instead of digging it up and sending it to a more secure disposal facility.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., the measure's sponsor, said the new approach would save the government $16 billion and speed cleanup, while still preserving the environment. Graham also insisted that the modified cleanup standards would apply only to South Carolina and not necessarily to the Energy Department's other contaminated weapons sites, including Hanford.
Critics, including Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sharply disagreed, insisting that Graham's provision would open the gates to lower cleanup standards at all Energy facilities, including Hanford, and would allow the federal government to retreat from its promise to clean up heavily contaminated weapons plants.
"I've been around too long to believe that," Murray said to suggestions that the policy applies only to South Carolina. "It's been DOE's goal from the very beginning to have this policy be put into place. They crack the door open and there's no end."
Those fears are reinforced by concerns that Hanford officials already are pushing ahead with plans to leave significant amounts of radioactive material in the tanks.
A draft plan released by the Energy Department in April proposes leaving behind 10 percent of tank waste, as compared with the 1 percent of waste originally stipulated in a cleanup agreement signed in 1989 by the state of Washington, the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite the setback, Cantwell said she would continue to fight the provision in Congress and in the courts if needed. And she suggested that Graham had been duped into backing the new approach. "Senator Graham will find out that DOE has used him as a ploy and that his state will be less protected," she said.
According to the Energy Department, Hanford holds 53 million gallons of highly radioactive waste in 177 aging underground tanks. At least 67 tanks have leaked more than 1 million gallons of radioactive waste into the soil, contaminating the aquifer and threatening the Columbia River.
Aware of the threat, the state of Washington, the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement in 1989 outlining how Hanford would be cleaned up. The agreement requires the Energy Department to remove as much waste as technically feasible, but not less than 99 percent.
The Energy Department plans to siphon out the liquid and sludge waste from the tanks, turning that into glass logs for disposal, but it maintains that it would be too expensive to extract the remaining residue. Instead, the department has proposed reclassifying it as low-level waste, encasing it in a mortarlike grout, then filling the tanks with concrete and leaving them in place.
That prospect, critics said, is what got a boost in the Senate yesterday.
A senior Energy Department official would not directly comment on whether the department would attempt to apply the new standards to Hanford and other facilities.
But Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow said, "We are very pleased that the Senate approved DOE's scientifically sound plans to empty, clean, stabilize and dispose of nuclear waste currently stored in tanks at its Savannah River site in South Carolina."
He added that the department would work with Washington and Idaho, which has the other major site, "to negotiate with these states to find a mutually agreeable solution that resolves these issues."
Graham agreed, saying after the vote, "demagoguery was trumped by the facts. I think this is a huge step forward and I'm going to fight for this as long as I'm in the Senate."
P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461 or email@example.com