NYT: Atomic Waste Disposal Rules Set for Debate by Congress
- from Condor..thanks!
June 1, 2004
Atomic Waste Disposal Rules Set for Debate by Congress
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON, May 31 - A dispute over whether millions of gallons of radioactive waste can be safely left in aging steel tanks has become an issue in the military authorization bill for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
In contention is an Energy Department plan to let it decide how to handle waste created while making nuclear weapons. The department says it could cut decades off the ongoing cleanup of radioactive waste and reduce the cost by tens of billions of dollars if it left substantial amounts of waste in underground tanks and covered them with a grout.
But environmentalists sued, saying that disposal method was unsafe. Last July a Federal District Court in Idaho, where some of the tanks are located, ruled that a 1982 law requires deep burial.
The Energy Department countered by asking Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to introduce an amendment to the military bill now before the Senate to allow the department to decide how much of the waste can be left permanently in the tanks. Debate on that amendment is expected to be one of the first orders of business when Congress returns on Tuesday.
When the bill reached the Senate floor on May 20, just before the recess, Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State, where more tanks are located, tied up deliberations with a lengthy denunciation of the idea.
"For most Americans, grout is something they see in their bathroom, not something they do with nuclear waste," she said. She said that the Energy Department was engaged in a "sneak attack" to reclassify the waste to avoid the requirement for deep burial and that this would overturn 30 years of federal policy without public debate.
"Who wants to save money by leaving nuclear waste in the ground, where it is leaking into the Columbia River or the Savannah River, or other areas of the country?" she asked, speaking for about two hours.
The Energy Department is seeking to establish a deep-burial site in Yucca Mountain in Nevada, though any disposal there is at best years away. In the meantime, it says the federal ruling, by Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Federal District Court in Boise, Idaho, has left it unable to proceed with any cleanup.
Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, said the amendment would allow the Energy Department "to pursue the best plan to dispose of this nuclear material."
"That plan saves our taxpayers money," he said. "It shortens the amount of time the waste remains in the tanks. It is a safe way to do it. It is a well-thought-out way of doing it and one that has been the subject of a lot of daylight."
Kyle E. McSlarrow, the deputy secretary of energy, said in an interview that the result of the court case, initiated by the Natural Resources Defense Council, was "paradoxical" because it was holding up cleanup of the tanks, many of which have already leaked some of their contents.
But in his ruling, Judge Winmill described the department's criteria for reclassifying the waste as based on little more than "whim."
At the Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., the Energy Department has already grouted two tanks. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who has been studying environmental problems at Savannah River since the 1980's, said in a statement: "There is no experience with grout that can allow containment projections of this magnitude. On the contrary, experience with grout so far has been unsatisfactory."
He said that if 10 percent of the strontium-90, a prominent radioactive material in the tanks, was left behind and the tanks were grouted, leakage could not rise more than one part in 100,000 per year for a century, or underground water supplies would be contaminated above the current federal drinking water standards.
The department and the Natural Resources Defense Council disagree about how to characterize the amount of waste that the department proposes to leave in tanks.
Mr. Graham said in an interview that he understood that the states would reach agreement with the Energy Department on what fraction of waste could be left behind. But the text of his amendment does not specify how that would be done.
The New York Times
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