October 1, 2003
Energy Dept. Seeks Power to Redefine Nuclear Waste
By MATTHEW L. WALD
ASHINGTON, Sept. 30 — The Energy Department has asked Congress to allow it to redefine some nuclear waste so it can be left in place or sent to sites intended for low-level radioactive material, rather than being buried deep underground.
Department officials say they thought they had flexibility in classifying what constituted high-level nuclear waste, but in July, a federal district judge in Idaho ruled that the department's plan for treating waste there violated the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, a 1982 law requiring the deep burial of high-level waste.
The argument concerns tens of millions of gallons of salts and sludges left over from weapons production that are now in tanks in Idaho, South Carolina and eastern Washington. High-level waste is supposed to be encapsulated in glass for burial. The department has chosen Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the repository site, but the site has not yet opened and when it does, it will not be big enough for all the solidified wastes and spent reactor fuel.
In the Idaho case, the Energy Department had said that some of the high-level waste was "incidental" and need not be removed from the tanks. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Snake River Alliance, a local environmental group, along with two Indian tribes, successfully argued that the order violated a longtime policy that high-level waste must be deeply buried.
The ruling also could affect waste from a defunct civilian reprocessing plant in West Valley, N.Y., near Buffalo. The waste has already been solidified, and department officials said Tuesday that the resulting glass logs would be shipped for deep burial. But the officials said that contaminated buildings and equipment there might be left on site.
"This is D.O.E.'s attempt to pawn off highly contaminated stuff on the state," Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said on Tuesday. "We are fighting it."
Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, the ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that "if the D.O.E. has the authority to change the classification of the waste at will, that pretty much undercuts any Congressional control of the issue." Mr. Bingaman said that one result could be wastes being shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, N.M., that did not belong there.
A department official said, however, that it would not change what was acceptable at the Carlsbad plant, which is designed for plutonium and other long-lived materials.
The Energy Department asked Congressional leaders in August for the authority to decide what constituted nuclear waste. A spokeswoman for the energy committee, Marnie Funk, said on Tuesday that the committee's Republican majority would not accept the Energy Department language, but opponents said that was just one of a series of proposals that the department would make.
Spencer Abraham, the secretary of energy, said in August in a letter to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert that the Idaho case could mean decades of delay in removing the waste from the tanks, and cleanup costs could be 10 to 100 times higher than the $39 billion now estimated.
An Energy Department official said the ruling had left the department paralyzed.
"The district court decision doesn't say which of the stuff from reprocessing has to go to Yucca Mountain," the official said.
Tom Cochran, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "Basically what they're doing is allowing the D.O.E. to abandon high-level waste and treat it under standards written for low-level waste."
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