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Debate needed on nuclear waste

The Spokesman-Review

For the sake of argument, let’s say leaving some lethal waste buried at nuclear weapons sites is a good idea, because the cost benefits outweigh the risks.

The next step would be to persuade affected parties and the public there is a scientific consensus on the matter. Without that, there would be no hope of a political consensus. The U.S. Department of Energy believes that leaving some waste behind is a good idea, but it is trying to slip this seismic policy shift into a defense authorization bill, without public comment or congressional debate.

Last year, DOE tried to get House-Senate conferees on an already passed energy bill to accept this change. But that bill has bogged down. Now it has found an opening in a bill that otherwise has nothing to do with energy matters. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., is pushing the change, but according to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, a deputy assistant energy secretary is listed as “author” in supporting documents.

In effect, Graham’s measure would exempt DOE from the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, allowing the agency to solely determine when a site has been “cleaned.” This is just the latest DOE maneuver to shut states out of the decision-making process, which is in direct conflict with the 1989 Tri-Party Agreement.

DOE has been trying to reclassify some “high-level” waste as “low level” for two years, but the states, Congress and the courts have said no. A federal judge’s ruling sent DOE back to Congress to get the law changed. Such a change would have enormous implications for sites such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, both of which are near major rivers. DOE previously announced a plan that would redefine as “low level” 53 million gallons of waste at Hanford and 900,000 gallons at INEEL.

Idaho and Washington are against reclassifying the waste. Said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington: “Trying to rename high-level nuclear waste doesn’t change the fact that it is still dangerous, toxic, radioactive sludge that needs to be cleaned up.”

Critics say another danger in allowing such waste to be reclassified and permanently buried where it sits is that it paves the way for the importation of any other waste DOE deems to be “low level.” Hanford could be a dumping ground for another state’s waste. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that the best approach is to bury nuclear waste deep underground. Since that conclusion, Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been chosen as the national repository.

Without a scientific or political consensus, it is unconscionable for DOE to seek such a major change on such an important matter, especially in the absence of an open debate. The agency needs to stop the repeated end-runs and make a good-faith effort to involve all affected parties if it sees the need for change.

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