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Inside NRDC
Photo of Geoff Fettus and Daisy at home in Washington, D.C.

Dogging the Feds

Forcing the government to clean up its radioactive waste is a never-ending job.

On the afternoon of Friday, October 8, 2004, Geoffrey Fettus, NRDC's attorney for all things nuclear, received some shocking news. Congress had voted to allow the Department of Energy to abandon highly radioactive nuclear waste stored in tanks at nuclear weapons facilities in South Carolina and Idaho, overturning one of his hard-won courtroom victories. Without any open debate, the measure passed as a last minute addition to a defense spending bill. Fettus was livid.

The backroom legislative maneuver was just another twist in a suit that Fettus had filed against the Department of Energy in February 2002, arguing that the agency had been using a "magic wand" approach to cleaning up one of the most dangerous substances on earth. Rather than legally disposing of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from plutonium production in a deep underground repository, department officials had reclassified the hot sludge as "incidental waste" so it could be left aboveground in corroded tanks. A new name and -- poof! -- the problem disappeared, even though the toxic waste could contaminate nearby aquifers for generations to come.

In July 2003, Fettus won his case in federal district court. But 15 months later, on that October afternoon, Congress unraveled the victory by amending the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. The tactic was emblematic of the challenges Fettus faces in his effort to force the government and its private contractors to clean up.

Fettus first encountered the cold war's leftovers in 1993, when he worked on nuclear issues at the Environmental Law Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "That's when I learned that the federal government is the country's largest polluter by far," Fettus recalls. "I wanted to make it accountable." He has since battled the Pentagon over nuclear contamination in Colorado, served as an assistant attorney general in New Mexico, and worked with the federal Department of Energy's environmental cleanup program. "He knows the facts, he knows the law, and he knows the unholy history of the nuclear weapons complex," says Doug Wolf, a former colleague at the Environmental Law Center.

Today, Fettus keeps a close eye on the government's plans to dispose of high-level radioactive waste -- mostly spent nuclear fuel rods -- at an underground site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The Bush administration has been pressing the federal agencies involved to relax environmental standards so that the site can be licensed more quickly. But last July, NRDC and the state of Nevada posted a victory when a federal appeals court rejected an Environmental Protection Agency plan that would have relied on man-made containers to isolate the waste, rather than on the site's geology, as mandated by Congress. "For a project of this magnitude, both law and simple common sense require that it be done right, rather than shoveled through at any cost," he says.

With a $7 billion yearly price tag, cleaning up the government's nuclear weapons complex is the largest project of its kind. Monitoring the ordeal consumes Fettus. "I can't tell you how many other cases we have to turn down," he says. "We pick up others only when they promise to have a lasting impact." He's working on such a case in New Mexico, where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has licensed a uranium mine that could contaminate drinking water for 20,000 Navajos. "Do you think this would happen in the wealthy suburbs of New York?" he asks. "Not a chance."
-- Elliott Negin

Also Inside NRDC


Down by the River

Last year, Congress gave the Department of Energy permission to reclassify -- and, in effect, abandon -- radioactive waste at two sites on the promise that it would save the federal government billions of dollars. This year, however, the Bush administration's proposed 2006 budget has cut cleanup funds for one of those two locations, South Carolina's Savannah River site, by just $6 million over the entire life of the cleanup. So the agency isn't going to clean up the waste, and it isn't going to save taxpayers billions of dollars either. American citizens may now be left with one serious toxic mess, sitting on the banks of the Savannah River, all for a few million bucks.

Photo: Geoff Fettus and Daisy at home in Washington, D.C., photographed for OnEarth by Drake Sorey

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council