Senate Lowers Standard for High-Level Nuclear Waste Cleanup

WASHINGTON, DC, June 8, 2004 (ENS) - As the leaders of the eight most industrialized countries gather at Sea Island on the coast of Georgia this week, about 150 miles inland at the Savannah River Nuclear Site much of America's most radioactive waste sits in huge tanks, several of which are leaking. Some of that high-level waste will remain in the tanks instead of being enclosed in glass and buried in an underground repository, if a measure passed by the U.S. Senate last week becomes law.

On Thursday, senators approved language as part of the 2005 Defense Department budget that allows the U.S. Energy Department to reclassify millions of gallons of high-level wastes as "incidental" thereby lowering the standard for cleanup. The reclassification would give the department the authority to leave the waste on site, a move opposed by environmentalists and Senate critics as irresponsible and unsafe.

The Senate rejected an amendment by Democrats to strip language from budget bill to allow reclassification of the waste. The language was added to the Senate bill by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, who called the measure an "environmentally friendly and cost-effective" way to expedite cleanup of 37 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste at the site and save billions of dollars.

Federal law currently requires the government to encapsulate this waste in glass and bury it deep underground as set forth in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.


South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham authored language to reclassify high-level radioactive waste. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Ninety-nine percent of the waste would be removed from the tanks and turned into glass logs for eventual shipment to the permanent long-term storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada," said Graham.

"Some residual waste, less than two inches deep, will remain in the tank and be mixed with concrete and grout. Removal of this material is impractical and poses dangers to worker safety. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control would be given veto power over residual waste left in the tank and would determine when the tank is clean enough to be closed," Graham explained.

“Because of this agreement, we’re looking to do it 23 years ahead of schedule and at a cost savings to the taxpayer of almost $16 billion,” said Graham. “It is a good plan for the Site, state, and the nation.”

At issue is high-level radioactive waste stored in 51 massive underground tanks at the site, which contain more than half the radioactivity in the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex. The Savannah River Site is located along 28 miles of the Savannah River between Aiken, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia.

The Energy Department is keen to grout the waste in the tanks and leave it on site, but for this to be legal, the waste must be reclassified as less hazardous.

Last year a federal court in Idaho rejected the Department of Energy's attempt do this through a rulemaking process - the administration has appealed that ruling but has pressed Congress to provide it with a legislative remedy.

Graham and proponents noted the rider has the support of South Carolina's governor.

In a May 20 letter to Graham, Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, wrote, "This Administration is concerned about the prospect of long-term storage of radioactive waste in aging tanks at the Savannah River Site. Under the current Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the cleanup process could leave the waste in those storage tanks for an additional 30 years."

"Most important," wrote Sanford, "is ensuring that the State of South Carolina will be able to retain an oversight role in the cleanup process. According to analysis by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, the state's environmental regulatory agency, the clean up process will still require an equal partnership with the State."

But officials in states with similar radioactive waste storage tanks – Idaho and Washington – oppose the language and fear it will give the Energy Department a precedent to force them into accepting a similar deal.

Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, who authored the defeated amendment to strip Graham's language out of the legislation, remained defiant. “Let's see what the rest of America is saying about this because I guarantee this debate will not end today,” she told colleagues.


Washington Senator Maria Cantwell proposed an amendment that would have removed all nuclear waste from tanks at the Savannah River Site. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Cantwell is concerned because the huge Hanford Nuclear Site located in south-central Washington with its aging, leaking tanks of high-level radioactive waste presents the same problems as the Savannah River Site.

Tanks at Savannah River are leaking, said Cantwell, and so are the waste tanks at Hanford. "The Hanford Reservation in Washington State has 50 million gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste that is already leaking into the ground water."

"No one in the region wants to believe that somehow radionuclides are now in the Columbia River, which, in fact, they are, and that it is going to grow to an amount where we cannot protect humans, fish, and safe drinking water," Cantwell said. "Similar leakage is happening at Savannah River."

What bothers the critics of Graham's provision to leave some waste in the tanks and grout it, is that the Department of Energy (DOE) is using this budget bill to get around going through the formal procedure of reclassifying the high-level waste as less hazardous.

"If DOE and the State of South Carolina had the authority to make a decision on this and work together, why don't they just do it?" asked Cantwell on the Senate floor. "If they are not trying to change existing law, why don't they just come together and make an agreement on cleanup?"

"They are not," she said, "because they are trying to change existing law. They are trying to change the definition of what is high-level waste. They are trying to do that without having the proper hearings, without going through the proper committees of jurisdiction, without giving people enough time and enough notice on this issue."

Savannah River

Waste is vitrified at the Savannah River Site's Defense Waste Processing Facility. (Photo courtesy BNFL Inc.)
The other senator from South Carolina, Fritz Hollings, joined Cantwell in the amendment to strip Graham's language from the Defense Authorization Bill. Senator Hollings wants no radioactive waste left at Savannah River, because he says the site is too dangerous for it to be stored there.

Hollings said he was warned 49 years ago, when he was lieutenant governor of South Carolina "that the Savannah River was not a place for permanent storage."

"We had the Tuscaloosa aquifer, which is the water supply going into the Savannah River that now furnishes Savannah, Augusta, and other cities along that river their water supply."

"Otherwise, it is on the very edge of an earthquake fault. The earthquake fault comes right through from Calhoun County to Orangeburg County over to Aiken County."

Environmental groups are critical of the plan to reclassify high-level nuclear waste as "incidental," grout it and allow it to remain in waste tanks at Savannah River. Senator Hollings read into the record a letter he received from the South Carolina Wildlife Federation which said, "Merely changing the name of the waste from high-level with the wave of a magic wand does not make the risk to the environment any less."

"Failing to clean up the tanks and remove the waste can lead to serious long-lasting pollution of the Savannah River and the groundwater resources of South Carolina, resources that provide water for drinking, industry, and agriculture," said the state wildlife federation. "The Savannah River is also an extremely important recreational resource for boating and fishing, and it provides critical wildlife habitat for diverse fishery, waterfowl and other species."

But the Department of Energy is spending no time on these concerns. On Thursday, immediately after the Senate turned down the Cantwell-Hollings amendment and voted to allow grouted radioactive waste to remain on the Savannah River Site, Deputy Secretary of Energy Kyle McSlarrow directed the DOE to proceed with the Salt Waste Processing Facility in Savannah River.

As far back as 2002, the DOE contracted with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., Inc and Foster Wheeler USA to produce a conceptual design for a demonstration scale Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF) at the Savannah River Site capable of processing 15 percent of the amount of waste that might eventually be put through the facility.

salt process

Contactor Apparatus at the Savannah River Technology Center Shielded Cells Demonstration Facility. This represents the first Caustic-Side Solvent Extraction process demonstration using Savannah River Site (SRS) high level waste. It utilizes a novel solvent invented at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. (Photo courtesy SRS)
The absorption/filtration process will remove actinides and a solvent extraction process will separate highly active cesium from a sodium salt solution. The separated actinides and cesium streams will be sent the Defense Waste Processing Facility at the Savannah River Site to be encased in glass in a process called vitrification.

The bulk sodium salt stream will be sent to the Saltstone Grout Facility. "There are approximately 34 million gallons of waste stored in tanks at SRS that will require salt processing," the DOE said.

Although Senator Graham and his supporters said the reclassification language only addresses the waste at the South Carolina site, McSlarrow immediately issued a directive that would apply to "storage tanks in Idaho and Washington."

“There remain issues relating to the final disposition of waste in Idaho and Washington," McSlarrow said, promising to negotiate with these states "to find a mutually agreeable solution that resolves these issues.”

There is no similar language in the House Department of Defense budget bill. If it is included in the final Senate version of the spending bill, conference committee members will have to add it in the final committee report.

The 48-48 Senate vote fell along party lines, with Republicans opposing the amendment and Democrats supporting the removal of the waste reclassification language.

Only one Democrat – Georgia’s Zell Miller opposed the Cantwell-Hollings amendment; three Republicans - Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, Oregon’s Gordon Smith, Arizona’s John McCain - and the Senate’s lone Independent, Vermont’s James Jeffords, voted to strike the waste reclassification language from the bill.

The senators not voting were Colorado Republican Ben Campbell and three Democrats – North Carolina’s John Edwards, Montana’s Max Baucus, and presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts.