Judge Allows Suit to Proceed Against Energy Department over Nuclear Waste

NRDC and Coplaintiffs Charge DOE Illegally Awarded Itself the Authority to Reclassify High-Level Waste to Avoid Proper Cleanup

WASHINGTON (August 12, 2002) -- A federal district court judge late Friday denied the Department of Energy's motion to dismiss a suit alleging that the agency gave itself the authority to illegally reclassify high-level nuclear waste so that it could leave it at three facilities. In his ruling, the judge, B. Lynn Winmill at U.S. District Court in Boise, said, "[I]t is inconceivable that Congress intended to allow the DOE unfettered discretion in the management of radioactive waste as the Defendants [DOE] have alleged." (A pdf file of the judge's decision is available from NRDC.)

"We are pleased Judge Winmill denied DOE's motion to dismiss and that the facts of this case will be heard," said Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), one of the plaintiffs and lead counsel in the case. "It's stunning that the Energy Department is trying to cut corners when dealing with a substance as dangerous as high-level nuclear waste.

"The agency says it would like to accelerate cleanup," Fettus added. "We would like the cleanup to take less time, but not by stashing thousands of tons of the nation's most radioactive waste under a concrete cap in leaky tanks and hoping no one notices."

The original lawsuit, filed in February 2002 by NRDC, the Snake River Alliance and the Yakama Indian Nation, argues that DOE, by giving itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste as "incidental waste," would use an illegally low standard for cleaning up 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. Dozens of the tanks in Washington and South Carolina are leaking.

NRDC and its coplaintiffs maintain that DOE is required by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to bury all of its high-level radioactive waste deep underground in a geologic repository. They say that leaving the waste in tanks and covering it in concrete would ensure it would eventually leach into groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River in Washington, the Snake River Aquifer in Idaho, and into the water table at the Savannah River site.

Since filing the suit, the plaintiffs have been joined by the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, whose reservation sits about 40 miles downstream on the Snake River from the INEEL. The court also has allowed Washington and Idaho standing in the lawsuit as "friends of the court."

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 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.