Energy Department pledges to remove 99 percent of nuclear waste from tanks

The Energy Department is committed to removing 99 percent of the nuclear waste in underground tanks at weapons sites, and anything less is "off the table," the head of the cleanup program told lawmakers Thursday.

WASHINGTON — The Energy Department is committed to removing 99 percent of the nuclear waste in underground tanks at weapons sites, and anything less is "off the table," the head of the cleanup program told lawmakers Thursday.

Assistant Energy Secretary Jessie Roberson told a Senate hearing that she saw no chance that as much as 10 percent of the waste might be kept in the tanks even if the department is allowed to keep residual sludge at the bottom of the buried containers.

The assurance came as Roberson was pressed by senators about the cleanup of highly radioactive waste left over from decades of plutonium production for nuclear weapons at the Energy Department's Hanford complex in Washington state as well as at sites in Idaho and South Carolina.The department would like to reclassify the residual sludge that will be left at 177 buried tanks at Hanford and in dozens of similar waste tanks at the Savannah River site in South Carolina and the INEEL facility in Idaho as having a "low level" of radioactivity.

The proposal, which would require Congress to change the nuclear waste law, has been met with concern in Washington state and Idaho, where officials argue the sludge should be buried in a special repository to be built in Nevada for high-level radioactive defense waste. The department wants to mix the sludge with a cementlike grout and not remove it.

Roberson, who is leaving her job next month for personal reasons, sought to allay some of the states' concerns at a hearing by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, told Roberson he had been informed that the department was considering leaving as much as 10 percent of the waste and "dangerously high" levels of radiation in the Hanford tanks.

Unless the state agrees to something different, said Roberson "99 percent is what we're living by.... I don't see any chance that we're gong to go to (disposing only) 90 percent."

Wyden said he was encouraged but not totally satisfied by the assurance and asked it in writing. And Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, also wanted a guarantee that the Energy Department would stick to the 1 percent.

"That is our commitment," said Roberson.

Some environmentalists, when asked to respond to Roberson's assurances, questioned the significance.

"One percent of what," said Tom Cochran, a nuclear waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He argued that a small amount of waste volume left in the tanks could have a large percentage of the radioactive intensity in a tank.

Geoff Fettus, an NRDC lawyer who brought the successful lawsuit challenging DOE's attempt to reclassify tanks waste without congressional action, said "What they plan to leave behind in the tanks has been a moving target." In court papers they said they would remove "as much as economically and technically feasible," said Fettus.

On a related issue, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, told Roberson that, should residual radioactive sludge be allowed to be kept in the tanks, he was concerned that the Energy Department - and not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) would determine whether the grout-sludge mixture met NRC criteria for low-level waste.

"I would feel much more comfortable if the NRC made the decision on whether its own criteria had been met," said Bingaman..

Roberson said she was confident waste left in the tanks would have a low enough radioactive intensity to classify it as low-level once mixed with the grout. "We believe we are not leaving high-level waste in the tanks," she insisted.

The DOE announced earlier this week that Roberson was resigning as head of the cleanup program, effective July 15, after three years on the job.

Asked about the resignation Thursday, she denied her departure involved policy issues, criticism by some lawmakers of the tank cleanup plan, or the recent resignation of two other senior DOE officials involved in environmental cleanup issues.

She said "a little ruffling" at a hearing would not cause her to quit. "I leave for personal reasons, and they are unconnected to anyone else but my family."

Source: Associated Press