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Court Rules Energy Department Reclassification of Nuclear Waste Illegal

Judge Agrees with NRDC that DOE Illegally Awarded Itself the Authority to Reclassify High-Level Waste to Avoid Proper Cleanup

WASHINGTON (July 3, 2003) -- A federal district court judge late yesterday ruled that the Department of Energy violated the law when it granted itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste so that it could abandon it at three nuclear weapons facilities. In his ruling, Judge B. Lynn Winmill at the U.S. District Court in Boise, said, "DOE does not have discretion to dispose of defense [high-level waste] somewhere other than a repository established under [the Nuclear Waste Policy Act]." (Click here for a pdf of the judge's decision.)

"This ruling is a great victory for the environment and communities near high-level radioactive waste sites," said Geoffrey Fettus, staff attorney at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) who argued the case on behalf of NRDC, the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Snake River Alliance. "It's stunning that the Energy Department was trying to cut corners when dealing with a substance as dangerous as high-level nuclear waste. It was prepared to create 'national sacrifice zones' at three sites, which would have posed a long-term threat to public health."

Dr. Thomas Cochran, a physicist and director of NRDC's Nuclear Program, noted that "this case is the most egregious of several ongoing efforts by the Department of Energy and the nuclear industry to 'solve' their nuclear waste problems by relaxing regulatory standards instead of cleaning up their mess."

The NRDC February 2002 complaint argued that DOE, by awarding itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste as "incidental waste," violated federal law and would allow the agency to use a substantially less protective standard of cleanup for some 100 million gallons of the nation's most highly radioactive waste. Most of this waste is located in underground tanks at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington; the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) near Idaho Falls; and the Savannah River site near Aiken, South Carolina. Several tanks in Washington and South Carolina are leaking. (Click here for an NRDC backgrounder on the case.)

The court agreed with NRDC and its co-plaintiffs that DOE is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to bury of all of its high-level radioactive waste deep underground in a geologic repository. To abandon tens of thousands of gallons of high-level waste in corroding tanks would ensure that waste would eventually leach into the groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River in Washington, the Snake River Aquifer in Idaho, and into the water table at the Savannah River site.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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