Nuke Waste 'Class' Dispute

Employees of AhnLab Inc. work at Security Operation Center in Seoul, South Korea, July 9, 2009.
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
The Energy Department wants the power to reclassify some nuclear waste so that it doesn't have to be stored deep underground, a move critics say would undercut Congressional control of spent radioactive material, a newspaper reports.

The New York Times reports the Energy Department made the request to Congress last month after a federal judge's ruling that, the department says, has tied its hands. Congress appears likely to resist the move, but critics warn the department will try to gain the authority again.

High-level radioactive waste must be encases in glass and shipped to the lone federal facility for handling it, at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But that site is not open yet and will not be able to accommodate all the country's reactor waste.

Hoping to preserve capacity at Yucca mountain, the Energy Department tried to reclassify some reactor waste water stored in Idaho. Labeling some of the waste "incidental," the department planned to leave it in the tanks where it is now stored. But a federal judge ruled in July that the DOE's plan violated federal law.

Similar waste waters and sludges, the remnants of nuclear weapons production, are stored in South Carolina and Washington state. According to The Times, the July ruling could also affect a facility in upstate New York where contaminated buildings may be left in place.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told The Times: "This is DOE's attempt to pawn off highly contaminated stuff on the state."

New Mexico Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman, said that "if the DOE has the authority to change the classification of the waste at will, that pretty much undercuts any Congressional control of the issue."

But the Energy Department argues that the July ruling poses a huge obstacle to their plans to treat and store radioactive waste. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham warns the delay could increase the current estimated $39 billion price tag by 10 or 100 times.

The Energy Department normally treats liquid waste by turning it into a stable solid and either incinerating or burying it in steel and concrete casing. Normally, low-level radioactive waste is disposed of in special landfills or mixed with ash, loaded into steel drums and stored in concrete until it can be disposed.