updated 3/2/2005 10:58:59 AM ET 2005-03-02T15:58:59

A significant amount of radioactive waste from Cold War bomb-making should remain at former production sites, and several locations should be kept open longer than planned to treat waste from elsewhere, scientists recommended Tuesday.

Reports by two panels of the National Academies urged the Energy Department to revamp its massive $140 billion cleanup plans for defense nuclear waste with the goal of transporting less of it to a central facility.

This would allow cleanup activities to be completed sooner and cost less, the panels said. The current cleanup schedule, involving dozens of sites, envisions most waste treatment and disposal to be finished in 20 years.

Bring other experts in, DOE urged
But the scientists also called for greater involvement outside of the Energy Department in determining what wastes should be left in place and what should be transported to a geological repository. The report said the department’s credibility on decisions involving waste disposal is hampered because the DOE both proposes and approves waste disposition plans.

“DOE should not attempt to adopt these changes unilaterally,” said the panel, suggesting the Environmental Protection Agency or Nuclear Regulatory Commission and perhaps an independent group of experts get involved in assessing how radioactive wastes should be treated.

This approach was applauded by some environmentalists Tuesday, who have argued that DOE has too much power in making waste disposal decisions. The report “clearly sent a message that Congress must rein in DOE and address the mess that it has made of nuclear waste cleanup policy,” said Geoff Fettus, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

There was no immediate reaction from the Energy Department.

Removal issue
States with some of the biggest cleanup challenges — including Washington, Idaho and South Carolina — and have argued that high-level defense nuclear waste should be taken away for deep geological burial.

But a National Research Council panel, asked to review the government program, concluded that the “recovery of every last gram” of such waste “will be technically impractical and unnecessary.”

In some cases removing waste could lead to increased human exposures to radiation, the panel said. It also said the expense associated with retrieval, immobilization and disposition of some of the waste in a central repository “may be out of proportion with the risk reduction achieved, if any.”

An attempt to recover all of this waste — such as the hardened “heel” waste attached to the inside of buried tanks at the Hanford site in Washington state — could lead to further leaks and contamination than if it were left in place, the report said.

Another National Research Council panel issued a companion report. It recommended that the Energy Department use waste treatment facilities that will handle cleanup efforts at the most contaminated sites to treat waste from other defense sites. That would require those facilities to stay open longer than planned.

Such use of treatment facilities at the Hanford site in Washington state, the Savannah River complex in South Carolina, the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho would accelerate overall cleanup efforts, the report said.

Background to debate
How far the Energy Department should go to clean up the environmental damage left over from decades of bomb-making and the pace of the cleanup have sparked intense debate between the federal government and states. State officials fear they may be burdened permanently with waste that will be highly radioactive for thousands of years.

Citizen activists and state officials argue that the federal government is required to remove as much of the highly radioactive waste left over from bomb-making as is technically possible. Such waste, they say, should go to an underground disposal site known as WIPP in New Mexico or the Yucca Mountain high-level waste dump proposed in the Nevada desert.

“Given the controversy surrounding this issue and the reality that not all of the waste will or can be recovered and disposed of offsite, the country needs a structured, well-thought-out way to determine which wastes can stay,” said David Daniel, chairman of the panel of scientists that wrote the report on what wastes should be exempted from deep geological burial.

The report said that techniques exist that allow the separation of the most highly radioactive material, which would go to a central repository, from less dangerous waste that can be processed to reduce the potential hazard and be allowed to remain where it is.

The panel, however, acknowledged that the implementation of a more “risk-based” approach to addressing the waste problem must be handled with care and within current rules and the law, or risk resistance from states.

The government must determine how best to dispose of the waste “in a manner the public can trust,” said Daniel, dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois.

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