Amendment Prohibiting High-Level Waste Reclassification Fails in the Senate

* A Senate amendment prohibiting the Department of Energy (DOE) from reclassifying high-level radioactive waste failed in the Senate this week. The amendment would have prohibited DOE from seeking to reclassify the waste in order to facilitate fast and cheap cleanup at several nuclear weapons sites nationwide.

Two amendments to the Senate Defense Authorization bill would allow DOE to reclassify millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste so that it may left in underground tanks, many of which are leaking into vital groundwater sources.

The waste is located at Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in Washington State and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne responded saying, "This ... would be a huge step backward, reinforcing public fears about our nation walking away from nuclear cleanup obligations."

The waste is the highly radioactive byproduct of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Opponents of reclassification say that DOE's cost-cutting measures may compromise health and safety of the communities surrounding the facilities. Therefore, Washington State Senator Maria Cantwell introduced a third amendment to the Defense bill striking the amendments that would allow reclassification. Senator Cantwell said, "If somebody thinks this is an issue that affects the state of Washington, or affects just Idaho, or affects South Carolina, it doesn't. There are bodies of water, with the potential of nuclear waste in them, that flow through many parts of our country."

Although Senator Cantwell's amendment failed marginally, the proposal to reclassify remains controversial nationwide. Brian Barry, a scientist and long-time analyst of the Hanford site, described reclassification as, "Three Mile Island a million times over," referring to the 1978 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Barry said in an editorial in The Oregonian, "Arsenic reclassified as sweetener does not alter its toxic effects."

New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman voted in favor of the Cantwell amendment while Senator Pete Domenici opposed it. If DOE is allowed to reclassify high-level waste, it could be disposed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico. High-level waste is currently forbidden at WIPP. Both Governor Bill Richardson and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary Ron Curry have voiced their opposition to high-level waste disposal at WIPP.

Governor Richardson said last autumn, "I want to make my position clear, I will not allow high-level waste in New Mexico, no matter what new name DOE comes up with to characterize it ... Waste that has been defined as high-level for decades would suddenly become low-level on DOE's whim."

Although Senator Cantwell's amendment failed, reclassification was also under debate in the House of Representatives, who have called for a National Academy of Sciences study on the effects of such a change. Further, DOE has committed to submitting to NMED a modification to the WIPP operating permit within the next month regarding high-level waste disposal at WIPP. There will be an opportunity for public comment later this summer.

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