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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Our View

A dangerous gamble on nuclear sludge

Changing the rules is the hallmark strategy of President Bush’s administration when confronted with laws it doesn’t like.

Don't want to provide lawyers to suspects in the war on terror? Classify them as "enemy combatants" and lock ’em up. Don't like the system of counting wild salmon to measure species attrition? Throw in hatchery salmon to boost the numbers. Don’t like scholars pawing through presidential papers? Issue an executive order sealing them from view. Want to start a war? Claim weapons of mass destruction from halfway around the world threaten the nation. And on it goes.

Now the administration wants to apply this sort of fudging to millions of gallons of radioactive nuclear sludge, and let the public health take the hindmost.

The Energy Department’s rationale? To save time and money, it claims, even if Americans could be at risk for generations to come.

The issue is this:

Hundreds of underground tanks at weapons-making and waste-disposal plants at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Washington state’s Hanford Site and the South Carolina Savannah River Site contain radioactive nuclear sludge.

The Energy Department wants to downgrade the sludge as low-level risk, mix it with grout—better known as a household sealant—and leave it, rather than ship it to the Yucca Mountain storage site in Nevada as required by law.

Standing in the way, happily, is U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill of Boise. In August 2002, the judge sided with allegations in a lawsuit brought by the National Resources Defense Council and ruled that "(I)t is inconceivable that Congress intended to allow the DOE unfettered discretion in the management of radioactive waste ... ."

So, the Bush administration is pressuring Congress to change the law to give DOE discretion in reclassifying the waste as virtually harmless so portions of it can be left in the tanks.

Not only is gambling with public wellbeing involved in this cavalier attitude, but also breaking decades-old promises to the public that the waste would be removed and stored at the Nevada site.

Americans understand and are sympathetic to reasonable and logical efforts to use public funds prudently. This is not one of those cases, however.

Just as the administration has tried to conduct the war in Iraq on the cheap by deploying troops without proper and sufficient equipment, now it hopes to risk exposure to nuclear waste by cutting corners on costs.

Enough. Despite their willingness to endure absurd politics, Americans have no tolerance for risking their health in the name of dubious budget belt tightening.


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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.