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Senate lets DOE reclassify nuclear waste

This story was published Friday, June 4th, 2004

By Les Blumenthal Herald Washington, D.C., bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Friday turned aside by the narrowest of margins a proposed amendment by Sen. Maria Cantwell and agreed to allow the Department of Energy to reclassify highly radioactive wastes in an effort to cut costs and speed cleanup at its nuclear sites.

Although language in the Defense Authorization Bill was aimed at the department's Savannah River, S.C., complex, Cantwell and other senators argued it would set a precedent that could later be applied at Hanford and other sites.

"It's a very, very, very dangerous precedent," said Cantwell, D-Wash. "It leaves our state in jeopardy and it leaves all states with nuclear waste in jeopardy."

Cantwell's amendment to strip the language from the defense bill was defeated on a 48-48 vote after more than three hours of debate. Amendments fail on a tie vote.

The critical vote forcing the tie came when Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, voted against the amendment. Snowe was the last senator to vote and was lobbied by Cantwell and others until just moments before she voted.

Though the outcome was mostly along party lines, Cantwell picked up support from three Republicans: Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

Three Democrats missed the vote: Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who had surgery earlier this week, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who is running for president, and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

"A tie is a loss," Cantwell said after the vote. "But we're not done."

Given the closeness of the vote, Cantwell said she might offer another amendment to the defense bill, which the Senate is far from finishing. The House version of the defense bill includes language that would require the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue.

"This isn't over yet," said Cantwell.

In a press release, U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, said discussions over such matters belongs in negotiating sessions between state and federal governments, not in Congress.

"The department needs to redouble efforts to reach an agreement with Washington state," he said.

The Department of Energy had sought to change the definition of high-level nuclear waste so it didn't have to remove the sludge from the bottom of underground tanks at Hanford, Savannah River and its site in Idaho.

Department officials said that rather than removing the sludge, it could be mixed with sand and gravel and turned into a groutlike substance that could remain in the tanks indefinitely.

Such a step could save $86 billion in cleanup costs, department officials said.

The department turned to Congress for authority to change the high-level nuclear waste definition after a federal judge in Idaho ruled the DOE couldn't do it unilaterally.

Washington, Idaho and South Carolina had joined in the lawsuit opposing the department, but they also opened negotiations with DOE, which had threatened to withhold $350 million in cleanup money.

Although Washington and Idaho failed to reach an agreement with the department, South Carolina did. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., inserted language in the defense bill that would have allowed a new definition when it came to the wastes at Savannah River.

More than 50 million gallons of highly radioactive wastes are stored in underground tanks at Hanford, which have leaked and in most cases are beyond their design life.

"DOE wants to change the rules of the game," said Cantwell, adding that rather than "sneaking" language into the defense bill, there needs to be a full debate on changing a 30-year-old definition included in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

"The department is playing a switch-and-run game because someone like OMB (the White House budget office) says we don't have the money" she said. "Well, guess what, cleanup is going to cost money."

Washington's other senator, Democrat Patty Murray, said the administration is trying to circumvent a court case it lost and blackmail Washington and other states into accepting lower cleanup standards.

"For more than a year, the Department of Energy has been trying to change the ground rules so it can leave more waste untreated, declare victory and walk away from out nation's most contaminated nuclear sites," Murray said. "They tried to do it in the courts and they lost. Today, they are trying to do it on the floor of the United States Senate."

Graham denied he had slipped the language into the bill as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which wrote the bill in a closed session. Graham said each state should have the right to negotiate a new definition of high-level nuclear waste with the Energy Department.

"What we have here is an agreement between environmental regulators in South Carolina and DOE over what is clean," Graham said, adding what was involved was roughly an inch of sludge in the tanks at Savannah River that will be classified as "waste incidental to reprocessing."

But South Carolina's other senator, Democrat Ernest Hollings disagreed. "We don't have states' rights when it comes to high-level nuclear waste," Hollings said. "We are playing with fire."

And Cantwell said that under Graham's language each of the 50 states could ultimately negotiate not only its own definition of high-level nuclear waste with the department but other environmental definitions with the federal government.

"What if Michigan negotiates its own clean air standards with EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency)?" Cantwell asked. "What if Florida negotiates its own standards for clean water?"

The Senate did adopt an amendment on a voice vote requiring the department to spend the $350 million in cleanup funding it had threatened to withhold, including more than $60 million for Hanford.

Kyle McSlarrow, the deputy energy secretary, said in a prepared statement he would direct DOE officials to proceed aggressively with work at the Hanford tank farms. Talks with the state of Washington would continue, he said. State officials have criticized DOE for failing to discuss what they call the substantive issues of waste reclassification.

The Washington Public Interest Research Group and Heart of America Northwest, two public interest groups, denounced the Senate action on reclassification.

"This is yet another attempt by the U.S. Department of Energy to weasel out of its obligation to properly clean up the radioactive mess it created at Hanford," said Robert Pregulman, executive director of WashPIRG, in a prepared statement.



© 2004 Tri-City Herald, Associated Press and other wire services.



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