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Radioactive Waste to Be Left in Tanks

by Jeff Johnson
October 18, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 42

Congress has given the Department of Energy the go-ahead to leave some high-level radioactive waste in huge underground tanks at contaminated former nuclear weapons sites in South Carolina and Idaho.

The provision, included in the defense authorization bill, redefines the radioactive tank sludge remaining after high-level radioactive liquid wastes are removed in those two states. The waste sludge need no longer be vitrified and buried in a repository, like high-level radioactive waste.

DOE pushed for the provision after losing a court case when it proposed covering the waste in grout and leaving it in the tanks to speed cleanups and lower costs. Although small in volume, the sludge is highly radioactive, say opponents voicing concerns about groundwater contamination. When DOE lost in court to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was supported by South Carolina, Washington state, and Idaho, the department turned to Congress to modify the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

In all, DOE oversees 100 million gal of radioactive waste in 250 underground tanks at DOE sites in Washington, South Carolina, Idaho, and New York.

The provision does not apply to the largest tank location, DOE's Hanford Site in Washington, whose congressional delegation opposed the measure. South Carolina officials were split.

The effort to modify the law was led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) directed the opposition. Spratt added provisions requiring Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversight and a National Academy of Sciences study.


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