Science Panel: Some High-Level Nuclear Waste Should Stay Put

WASHINGTON, DC, March 2, 2005 (ENS) - Some types of radioactive waste at U.S. Department of Energy sites should be buried or left in place rather than shipped to a geological repository, such as the one proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, say two new reports from the National Academies' National Research Council.

The nation needs to establish a "formal, risk-informed" approach to decide which wastes should stay on-site and which should be shipped away, said the 11 member Committee on Risk-Based Approaches for Disposition of Transuranic and High-Level Radioactive Waste.

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The Hanford Nuclear Site in southcentral Washington state contains underground storage tanks that holding 54 million gallons of hazardous and radioactive waste. (Photo courtesy Hanford)
At issue are millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste left over from Cold War bomb-making now stored in steel tanks at sites in South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho.

Reports by two panels of the National Academies urged the Energy Department to revamp its $140 billion cleanup plans for defense nuclear waste with the aim of transporting a smaller quantity of it to a central repository.

The panel found that it is "technically impractical and unnecessary" to remove every last gram of high-level radioactive waste and ship it to a repository.

"Given the controversy surrounding this issue and the reality that not all of the waste will or can be recovered and disposed of off-site, the country needs a structured, well-thought-out way to determine which wastes can stay," said David E. Daniel, chair of the committee that wrote the report and dean, College of Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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Committee Chair David E. Daniel is dean of the College of Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. (Photo courtesy UI)
"Information about the relative risks posed by various disposal options is vital to the decision-making process, and that information must be developed in a manner the public can trust," Daniel said.

The committee did not identify specific wastes that should be approved for alternative disposal.

Some transuranic waste currently buried at these sites, which consists of contaminated tools, clothing, and other debris, may not need to be removed to the the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, or WIPP, where this type of waste is buried in salt caverns.

The committee did not comment on how waste remaining on-site should be disposed of.

"The risk to workers and the environment involved in recovering some hard-to-retrieve waste, as well as the cost of doing so, may not be worth the reduction in risk - if any - that is achieved by disposal in a geological repository," the committee concluded.

The panel noted that techniques exist to separate highly radioactive material from some wastes, greatly reducing the potential hazard of what remains.

The scientists said agencies outside of the Energy Department should be involved in determining what wastes should be left in place and what should be transported to a repository, and observed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission both have expertise in regulating radioactive material.

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Sixty percent of the nation's nuclear waste is stored in tanks at the Hanford Site. Here workers address one of the 177 tanks on-site. (Photo courtesy Hanford)
The National Research Council studies stemmed from a controversy triggered when the DOE granted itself the authority to reclassify millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste as "incidental" waste, enabling it to leave it in tanks at facilities in Washington state, South Carolina and Idaho, instead of moving it to a permanent underground repository.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes, and the Snake River Alliance, sued to stop the agency from abandoning the waste, and prevailed in court in July 2003.

But last fall Congress granted DOE the authority to reclassify, and therefore unilaterally dispose of, high-level waste in South Carolina and Idaho, but not in Washington or any other state.

"By calling for direct external regulation over DOE’s unilateral, ad hoc process of radioactive waste reclassification, the National Academy of Sciences has clearly sent a message that Congress must rein in DOE and address the mess that it has made of nuclear waste cleanup policy," said Geoff Fettus, the NRDC attorney who handled the case.

Most of the waste of concern is located in underground tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls, and the Savannah River site near Aiken, South Carolina.

The NRDC says that several tanks in Washington and South Carolina are leaking. "More than a million gallons of this waste have leaked from these storage tanks into the environment," Fettus said.

The committee recommended that DOE and other interested parties implement a six-step decision-making process based on risk and other factors before any waste is exempted from deep geological disposal.

The report describes the characteristics of such a process and provides an example that is compatible with existing regulations, but it does not prescribe a specific process.

A second National Research Council report issued Tuesday says the DOE should consider extending the life of facilities used to treat and process radioactive waste at weapons and storage sites in Idaho, South Carolina, Washington, and Tennessee.

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Train carrying high-level radioactive waste in casks makes its way across Eureka County in northern Nevada. (Photo courtesy YuccaMountain.org)
DOE currently plans to shut down these facilities when they are no longer needed at each site, but the report says they could potentially be used to process radioactive waste from other sites, thereby accelerating overall cleanup efforts. Closing the facilities prematurely could seriously delay the overall cleanup of contaminated sites, the report warns.

The cleanup could be accelerated by declassifying contaminated equipment left over from the Manhattan Project, according to the report. As long as this equipment remains classified, only employees with security clearance can work with it. Declassification could help shorten cleanup time and decrease costs.

In visits to the sites, the committee that wrote the report noticed that buildings posing little risk were being destroyed despite DOE's declared strategy of targeting the most significant risks first.

The committee recognized that some wastes and contaminated equipment will be left in place. To ensure the long-term safety of what remains, the report recommends that DOE follow the "cocooning" approach now being used to secure reactors at the Washington site. This concept involves stabilizing and monitoring wastes and making adaptations as new knowledge emerges, while keeping all stakeholders clearly informed.

In light of the National Research Council conclusions, the NRDC today called on Congress to block the DOE from disposing highly radioactive waste in South Carolina, Idaho, Washington or New York.

The environmental group would like to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency granted direct regulatory authority over the disposal of DOE’s high-level radioactive waste.

Nevada Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat, has lobbied to prevent the transportation of 70,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste by road and rail from 39 states to Nevada for disposal.

"What we should do with nuclear waste is leave it where it is," Reid said in July 2001. "Eminent scientists say that that is the safest way to store the nuclear waste. It could be stored on site in dry-cask storage containers for a fraction of the cost of a repository, a monitor retrieval storage system or a permanent repository. It could be done with no danger."

Reid says leaving the waste in place temporarily would give scientists time to devise better solutions.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been licensing dry cask storage systems at many nuclear reactors across the country.