US Energy Department Makes Entirely Sensible Radioactive Waste Decision – Surprise!


Sensible decisions about radioactive waste are rare enough that we should celebrate when they happen. As has just happened here with the US Department of Energy – the people responsible for cleaning up the mess of the US atomic bomb program.

They’ve decided to use actual science and isn’t that a joy?

The US government plans to reclassify some of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste to lower its threat level, outraging critics who say the move would make it cheaper and easier to walk away from cleaning up nuclear weapons production sites in Washington state, Idaho and South Carolina. The Department of Energy said on Wednesday that labeling some high-level waste as low level will save $40bn in cleanup costs across the nation’s entire nuclear weapons complex. The material that has languished for decades in the three states would be taken to low-level disposal facilities in Utah or Texas, the agency said.

Well, yes, of course this is going to outrage some people. There always will be the terminally offended:

The new rules would allow the energy department to eventually abandon storage tanks containing more than 100m gallons (378m liters) of radioactive waste in the three states, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The change means that some of the “most toxic and radioactive waste in the world” would not have to be buried deep underground, the environmental group said. “Pretending this waste is not dangerous is irresponsible and outrageous,” group attorney Geoff Fettus said.

Tom Clements of Savannah River Site Watch, a watchdog group for the South Carolina nuclear production site, called the reclassification of waste “a cost-cutting measure designed to get thousands of high-level waste containers dumped off site”. He said moving the waste to Utah or Texas is a bad idea involving “shallow burial”.

What an outrage, eh? So, what is it they’re really going to do?

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sent a supplemental notice to the Federal Register that provides the public with its interpretation of high-level radioactive waste (HLW), informed by more than 5,000 public comments. For decades, DOE has managed nearly all reprocessing waste streams as HLW regardless of radioactivity. This one- size-fits-all approach has led to decades of delay, costs billions of dollars, and left the waste trapped in DOE facilities in the states of South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution.

“Recognizing this failure, this Administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower level waste currently housed in three states,” said U.S. Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar. “DOE is going to analyze each waste stream and manage it in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety.”

Going forward, DOE’s interpretation is that reprocessing waste streams are defined by their characteristics, not just how they were made. With this new interpretation, DOE will pursue new avenues for the responsible and safe treatment and removal of lower level waste that has been languishing at DOE sites, while protecting the environment and the health and safety of local communities.

So, before, if the waste came from a process that made boom booms then it was classified as high level waste. The stuff that has to go into 10,000 year storage in that hole in the desert they’ve not opened yet. Under the new rule they have a look at it. If it’s high level waste then it goes for that 10,000 year storage. If it’s the aprons worn by the blokes who were in the control room when the boom booms were being processed then it’s the low level waste it is and can be disposed of as low level waste. A decently managed landfill will be fine.

That is, they’re actually going to use science. Science to identify what the waste is, then science to decide upon the best method of disposal. And, of course, environmentalists are outraged at this use of science. Doesn’t everyone know that Teh Feelz is much more important?