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?

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Boganboy
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Boganboy

It does sound sensible to classify low level waste as low level waste.

Matt
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Matt

Spoke to a chap working at Sellafield years ago. He said that a fire exit sign that a cinema could just chuck in a skip, they would have to treat as not low-grade but medium-grade waste (I assume there would have been some tritium in the exit sign). The hysteria about all things nuclear — spurred on by the USSR’s useful idiots in the West in an attempt to sabotage nuclear weapons production — is what killed cheap, reliable, low-carbon (if that floats your boat), electricity.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Correct. And one reason there are no nuclear plants in Cornwall is that everyone who lives there exceeds the maximum permitted annual radiation dose every year. As would anyone living in an area with a lot of granite.

Dodgy Geezer
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Dodgy Geezer

One of the nice things about nuclear energy is that if you wait, High-level waste really does become low-level waste.

If something is VERY radioactive, it is going to have a short half-life. Most of the figures the activists wave around are completely incorrect…

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

Exactly. Low level waste gives off sub-banana tiny amounts of radiation for centuries, high level waste gives off huge amounts for days or weeks. It’s the medium level waste we should be worrying about – gives off measurable radiation for ages, stuff like Brazil nuts and granite.

Phoenix44
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Phoenix44

Yes, stuff that stays radioactive for a very long time isn’t very dangerous. Half life and emissions are 100% negatively correlated.

Mohave Greenie
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Mohave Greenie

Like many problems, it is political not scientific. There are many closed basins in the American West that have been that way for millions of years. Part of the problem is that they want to reduce the waste to harmless levels rather than natural levels. See the recent story about the basket of uranium ore that sat around the Grand Canyon museum for decades. Also, a lot of the dinosaur bones they pull out of here are also radioactive.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

Low-level waste consists of things like protective suits that have been worn in (what might become) a radioactive environment. As a rule of thumb:

(a) Low-level waste: safe to keep in a cardboard box under the bed.
(b) Medium-level waste: safe to keep in a metal box at the bottom of the garden.
(c) High-level waste: safe to keep at the bottom of a swimming pool for a few decades, after which it becomes (b).