updated 5/21/2004 11:41:07 AM ET 2004-05-21T15:41:07

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

Senate action on a defense bill stalled Thursday because of disagreement over the Energy Department’s plan to leave the sludge in South Carolina, Washington and Idaho, with a protective coating over it.

“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.”

The administration wanted to use the broad defense bill to change a 1982 law requiring that the wastes left from reprocessing plutonium for weapons be shipped to a central repository in Nevada.

The Energy Department contends the new administration plan would shorten by years the time it takes to clean up the wastes and save billions of dollars, while still protecting the environment.

Reclassify as low-level waste?
Provisions in a defense bill would let the government reclassify the sludge in tanks in South Carolina so it could be treated as low-level waste. The bill also would allow the department to withhold cleanup funds for Energy Department facilities in Washington and Idaho until they also agree to keep the wastes.

An amendment by Cantwell to get the nuclear waste provision out of the defense bill was debated throughout the day Thursday, but a vote on it was delayed until Congress returns in June from a Memorial Day vacation.

“Who wants to save money by leaving nuclear waste in the ground?” Cantwell asked.

But Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who had the language inserted into the defense bill during a closed meeting, argued that South Carolina still will have final say in assuring that any cleanup meets state water regulations. He has argued some of the sludge should never have been viewed as high-level waste and that reclassifying it would save $16 billion and shorten cleaning of storage tanks at the government’s Savannah River facility near Aiken, S.C., by 23 years.

That didn’t satisfy the state’s other senator.

“This is a highly dangerous procedure,” complained Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., predicting environmental disaster hundreds of years from now if the waste is kept in the tanks and leaks into the nearby Savannah River.

Waste basics, background
There are 34 million gallons of waste in underground tanks at Savannah River, 53 million gallons in tanks at DOE’s Hanford site near Richland, Wash., and 900,000 gallons in tanks at the INEEL facility in Idaho.

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. So, they want to cover it with cement-like grout and keep it in place.

A federal judge in Idaho has ruled that would violate the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The provision in the defense bill would change the 1982 law and, according to Idaho and Washington officials, could jeopardize the Idaho court ruling.

The Energy Department maintains that by mixing the waste with grout the residual sludge would lose radioactive intensity and qualify as low-level waste.

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