Strings attached to nuclear waste funds

Preparations are made to truck plutonium-contaminated waste out of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in this 1999 photo. The lab is among the sites that could see cleanup money withheld.
Preparations are made to truck plutonium-contaminated waste out of the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in this 1999 photo. The lab is among the sites that could see cleanup money withheld.Bill Schaefer / Idaho State Journal file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Energy Department is threatening to withhold $350 million that was to pay for disposal of some of the most dangerous radioactive waste from Cold War bomb-making. First, it says, Congress and state officials must accept a cleanup plan already rejected in court.

The issue has pitted a half dozen states against the Bush administration — raising concern that some of the millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste that are supposed to be solidified and buried by the government may, in fact, remain in place.

“I will not allow DOE to hold this work hostage, or to hold this budget hostage,” Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, told the head of the Energy Department cleanup effort at a recent hearing.

On Capitol Hill and in the states facing the cleanup task, critics are accusing the department of trying to force states to accept less stringent cleanup standards to save money and finish the job more quickly. The department argues that some of the waste has a low enough level of radioactivity that it can be covered with cement ground and left in place.

Last year, a federal judge in Idaho said the Energy Department’s plan to reclassify some of the waste in the tanks as “low level” and not remove it for burial violated the law. He said Congress specifically said all the waste, the byproduct of plutonium production during the Cold War, has to be treated as “high-level” waste and must be buried in a central facility, probably the planned site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Four states
The cleanup at sites in Washington, Idaho, South Carolina and New York is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars and take decades.

But the head of the cleanup program, Jessie Roberson, told congressional committees recently that the department has no plans to spend the $350 million earmarked for next fiscal year — and probably won’t even ask Congress for it — unless it is allowed to reclassify some of the radioactive waste to make disposal easier and cheaper.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reminded her that some people have characterized the department’s strategy as “blackmail” in an attempt to get the federal nuclear waste law changed and circumvent the federal court ruling. The Energy Department is appealing that court case, but would prefer Congress change the law.

“They didn’t get their way in court, so now they want the law changed,” Murray said in an interview. “Everyone is for accelerated cleanup as long as it’s done in a way that protects workers’ safety and we don’t cut corners.”

The waste, some in leaking tanks, has been described as a “witch’s brew of radioactivity” left over from nuclear reprocessing. Often only haphazard records were kept as to what actually was being poured into the tanks, according to cleanup engineers. Dealing with this material is at the core of a much broader waste cleanup effort that the Energy Department says will cost $273 billion.

The high-level waste include 53 million gallons in tanks at the department’s Hanford site near Richland, Wash., 34 million gallons at its Savannah River site near Aiken, S.C., and 900,000 gallons at its INEEL facility in Idaho. Also to be tackled are 600,000 gallons of waste left over from a short-lived civilian reprocessing program near West Valley, N.Y.

What is 'high level' waste?
Roberson told lawmakers recently the department wants to “aggressively reduce risks” posed by the tanks but that the Idaho court decision “makes it difficult, if not impossible” to proceed with cleanup.

As for the $350 million earmarked for dealing with the tanks in the fiscal year beginning in October, Roberson said, “These funds will be requested only if the legal uncertainties are satisfactorily resolved.”

“That’s extortion,” complained Susan Gordon, a Seattle activist and national director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability who has closely followed the Hanford and Idaho cleanup issues. She called the reclassification of the waste a ruse to “fence areas off” and leave more of the radioactive material behind.

But Roberson argued a change in the law is overdue.

“Historically we’ve taken a simplistic approach to managing (such) waste,” she maintained. The tank waste has been classified as “high level” because of its origin and not its composition, she argued, and Congress should change that to allow quicker and cheaper cleanup without reduced safety.

'Phony science' claim
Geoffrey Fettus, the lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council who brought the successful lawsuit challenging the cleanup plan, said there’s nothing in the judge’s order that prevents the Energy Department from spending the $350 million once Congress appropriates it.

“The judge’s decision merely bars DOE from abandoning the waste in the tanks by calling it incidental waste,” he said in an interview.

Tom Cochran, also of the NRDC, said the DOE wants to leave in the tanks material “that in some cases is more radioactive than the material they propose to take out” and call it low-level waste by averaging its radioactivity with benign grout that will be poured on top. That’s “phony science,” said Cochran.

Six states have joined in urging the appeals court to uphold the judge’s decision. Along with the four states where waste is located, Oregon joined because Hanford lies just across the Columbia River, and New Mexico joined because officials there are concerned a reclassification of the tank waste would result in more of it being shipped to a government repository near Carlsbad.