DOE Asks Congress to Reverse Recent Court Decision on High Level Waste

WASHINGTON (July 17, 2003) -- Today, the Department of Energy asked Congress to overturn a recent federal court ruling that the agency illegally gave itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste so that it could abandon it at three nuclear weapons facilities.

(For a pdf file of the judge's July 2 decision, click here. For the Natural Resources Defense Council's press release on the court's decision, click here. For more information on the issue, see the NRDC backgrounder on the case.).

In a morning hearing before the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management, Jesse Roberson, asked Congress to legislatively reverse the court's ruling in NRDC et al. v. Department of Energy, et al., Civ. No. 01-CV-413 (BLW). In her testimony, Roberson said: "The department believes it would be useful for Congress to reaffirm that the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does not mandate that the department dispose of defense high-level wastes in a geologic repository constructed under the [Nuclear Waste Policy Act]…. [T]he department also seeks explicit legislative reaffirmation that the department has the authority to determine which wastes from reprocessing do not require permanent disposal in a repository designed for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste."

"The court said that the law applies to Energy Department waste and it can't abandon that waste," said Geoffrey Fettus, the NRDC attorney who argued the case on behalf of NRDC, the Yakama Nation, the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and the Snake River Alliance. (Idaho, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting NRDC's position.) "The agency would be better off spending its energy cleaning up its mess rather than running to the Capitol to ask Congress to let it off the hook."

If Congress were to overturn the court's decision, Fettus pointed out, it would be responsible for making the Nuclear Waste Policy Act applicable to only commercial nuclear waste, not the high-level radioactive waste generated by the government; and allowing DOE to abandon millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste in corroding, leaking tanks.

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.