Congress Allows Nuclear Sludge to Remain in Idaho and South Carolina Waste Tanks

Lawmakers agreed recently to allow tons of radioactive sludge from Cold War bomb-making to be left in underground tanks at federal facilities in South Carolina and Idaho instead of being shipped to a central repository.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers agreed recently to allow tons of radioactive sludge from Cold War bomb-making to be left in underground tanks at federal facilities in South Carolina and Idaho instead of being shipped to a central repository.

The provision was put into a $447 billion defense bill during closed negotiations completed Friday. The House immediately took up the measure and was expected to approve it. The legislation is certain to clear Congress before it adjourns for the elections.

The measure reclassifies the sludge from high level to incidental, a category that means it can be left in the tanks and combined with concrete grout. The sludge accounts for about 1 percent of the tank waste, and the rest still will have to be removed.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the reclassification will allow his department "to move forward with safe and sensible environmental cleanup" of the tanks, which hold millions of gallons of waste from decades of nuclear weapons reprocessing activities.

The Energy Department contends the sludge would be extremely difficult and expensive to remove, and when combined with grout it no longer should be considered a high-level waste threat.

Environmentalists have argued that the radioisotopes, some of which will be dangerous for thousands of years, pose an eventual danger of contaminating groundwater.

The change had been sought by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. He inserted the language into the bill because he argued it would clear the way for speedier cleanup of the waste tanks at the Savannah River nuclear facility near Aiken, South Carolina.

"Because of this agreement, we're looking to do it 23 years ahead of schedule and at a cost savings to the taxpayer of almost $16 billion," Graham said in a statement. He said he and other state and local officials are convinced the environment will be protected and have endorsed the change.

While the measure initially applied only to waste at the South Carolina site, the final version also covers 300,000 gallons of liquid waste at the federal Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory near Idaho Falls.

The Savannah River tanks contain 34 million gallons of liquid, and the sludge accounts for about 1 percent of the volume.

The country's largest concentration of tanks, which hold about 53 million gallons at the Hanford facility in Washington state, is not covered by the provision.

State officials in Washington have been highly critical of Graham's proposal. They argue it would reduce their control over what nuclear material would remain in the state forever under the Energy Department's cleanup plan.

Washington state officials are negotiating cleanup standards for the 177 underground tanks at Hanford, insisting that the waste there continue to be viewed as high-level under a 1982 nuclear waste law.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, failed by the narrowest of margins, 48-48, to strip the Graham provision from the defense bill before it was approved by the Senate in June. The House version had no such provision, but it survived secret negotiations between the chambers and remained in the bill approved Friday.

This "throws out two decades of nuclear waste cleanup law in flagrant disregard of public health," said Geoffrey Fettus, an environmental attorney who argued successfully before a federal court in Idaho to block the Energy Department's attempt to reclassify the tank waste.

That court case, which the government is appealing, essentially will be overtaken by Friday's congressional action as it pertains to South Carolina and Idaho, said Fettus. He emphasized the decision still applies to the Hanford tanks.

The Energy Department maintains the proposed treatment of the sludge is a "scientifically sound plan to empty, clean, stabilize, and dispose of nuclear waste" in the tanks and fully protects the environment.

Idaho and South Carolina officials, including the states' governors, agreed to the change.

Graham said state officials in South Carolina have been assured the grout that remains after the mixing will not be a threat to health or safety, and the cleanup plan will be subject to a series of reviews by state agencies as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Fettus said the reviews are full of loopholes that will allow the government to dictate cleanup standards. He said the "back-room legislative fix" aimed at overcoming the Idaho court order will "leave a legacy of radioactive contamination" in the two states.

Source: Associated Press