Friday, October 15, 2004

Legislation to facilitate nuclear waste cleanup

Express Staff Writer

Recent action by Congress is expected to accelerate cleanup of radioactive liquid wastes at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory?but has drawn fire from nuclear activists.

Language inserted into the 2005 Defense Authorization Bill, passed last weekend, allows part of the wastes stored in 10 underground tanks to be exempted from permanent disposal at the proposed geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The legislation resolves a lawsuit filed by environmentalists in 2002 seeking to prevent the Department of Energy from reclassifying sludge left after draining the 300,000-gallon tanks as low-level waste. The DOE is required to dispose of only high-level waste at Yucca Mountain. The department had announced a plan to ship the liquids there, but to leave the sludge in place and fill the tanks with grout as a means of permanent disposal.

In July 2003, a federal judge in Idaho ruled that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act prohibited such a move. The DOE appealed the decision.

The recently enacted legislation, added in a conference committee to resolve conflicting House and Senate bills, was enacted as a response to that ruling. It is a compromise between the litigants? positions.

According to John Revier, legislative director for Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, the language applies both to the Savannah River waste storage site in South Carolina and to INEEL. It allows reclassification of some high-level waste to low-level waste, but does so under standards already set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission--it does not allow the DOE to do so unilaterally. It also requires the NRC to monitor the DOE?s cleanup.

?This agreement allows tank cleanup to move forward expeditiously while protecting the environment, workers and the long-term interests of the state of Idaho,? Simpson said in a press release. ?Idaho?s 1995 Settlement Agreement is expressly protected and its requirements of the DOE are in no way altered.?

However, the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group and a plaintiff in the 2002 lawsuit, objected to both the legislation?s effects and its inclusion through conference committee negotiations, rather than through open debate. In a press release, the group contended that the bill ?will allow DOE to abandon potentially millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste in South Carolina and Idaho.?

The DOE could not be reached for comment to determine whether the new legislation will allow it to follow its original plan for the tank cleanup.

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