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Senate Votes to Ease DOE Tank Waste Cleanups

June 14, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 24

Radioactive sludge remaining in 51 large tanks along the Savannah River at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site need no longer be treated as high-level radioactive waste due to provisions in the Senate fiscal 2005 Defense Authorization funding bill. Under a federal law written in 1982 and a district court decision reached last year, the sludge was to be handled the same way as liquid high-level radioactive waste in the tanks, which must be pumped from the tanks, treated, and eventually shipped to an underground repository. The new provisions, however, allow DOE to leave the sludge in the tanks and cover it with grout, saving the department billions of dollars and decades of time for the cleanup. The provisions were sponsored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham but opposed by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.). Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) led efforts to remove the provisions, fearing that they would eventually be expanded to include tank sludge at DOE's Hanford Site. Her amendment lost on a close vote. Cantwell and environmental and community groups believe grout will not contain the radioactive waste in the aging steel tanks. DOE officials say that, because of the amendment, some $350 million in funds would be freed for cleanups at Savannah, Hanford, and Idaho, which all have radioactive waste tanks. The department had argued that the new provisions were needed before cleanup efforts could continue; community groups and some in Congress said DOE's actions were a threat. The funding bill is expected to clear the full Senate this week but must go to conference with the House, whose version of the bill has no such provisions.


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