Independent Study Confirms NRDC Assessment

A report issued today by the National Academy of Science (NAS) Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board raises serious concerns about the Department of Energy's plan to dispose of millions of gallons of high level radioactive waste (HLW) in nearly 250 underground tanks in South Carolina, Washington, Idaho and New York.

The report, titled Tank Waste Retrieval, Processing, and On-site Disposal at Three Department of Energy Sites, echoes the concerns voiced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"The Academy is right on target in criticizing DOE's plans for high-level radioactive waste cleanup, which places schedule and budgetary concerns over protection of public health and the environment," said Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, a nuclear physicist and director of NRDC's Nuclear Program.

Nearly two years ago, Congress provided DOE in South Carolina and Idaho with the authority to reclassify HLW as "incidental" and bypass the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which mandates that HLW be sent to a geologic repository. At the same time, Congress asked the NAS to review DOE's cleanup plans for the HLW tanks. Today's 311-page report is the product of that request.

"Giving DOE the authority to reclassify highly radioactive waste was clearly bad science and bad policy," Cochran said. "Now Congress should heed the academy's advice and stop DOE's efforts to dispose of millions of curies of cesium in shallow burial at the Savannah River site. And Congress should immediately bring DOE's tank cleanup and radioactive waste disposal programs under the external regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the affected states."


Among the key issues addressed by the NAS report are:

  • "DOE should decouple its schedule for tank waste retrieval from its schedule for tank closure for those tanks that still contain significant amounts of radioactive material after initial waste retrieval is completed."

    According to NRDC, this means that DOE -- after making its initial attempt to remove as much HLW as possible, still has a tank with thousands of gallons of HLW containing potentially millions of curies of lethal radioactivity -- should not go ahead with the irreversible decision of pouring grout on top of the radioactive waste for "final closure." NRDC has argued for years that DOE has no technical or even financial reason to abandon HLW that will endanger drinking supplies. As the NAS states, "Decoupling will enhance future opportunities to remove additional radioactive material … as retrieval technologies are improved."

  • With respect to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, "The Committee has serious reservations about aspects of DOE's plans for tank closure, including the point of compliance and assumptions and exposure scenarios and waste inventories remaining after tank cleanup. The committee is also concerned about DOE's plans to dispose of large inventories of radionuclides in the Saltstone Vaults on-site."

    According to NRDC, the NAS is expressing serious reservations that DOE is measuring potential radioactive doses too far away from the tanks and its disposal sites, where the groundwater samples are diluted, in an attempt to claim "compliance." Additionally, the NAS has expressed serious concerns about the amount of HLW that DOE can abandon in the tanks at the Savannah River Site. And finally, the NAS shares NRDC's concerns that DOE plans to dispose of millions of curies of radioactive cesium in shallow burial at the site.

  • With respect to the Hanford Site in Washington, "The committee also has reservations about DOE's plans to use bulk vitrification as a secondary process for treating low-activity waste for on-site disposal."

    According to NRDC, the NAS is echoing NRDC's concerns that DOE's plans at Hanford are not protective of the environment and public health.

What now

Congress should immediately halt DOE's actions to reclassify HLW in South Carolina, especially those disposal decisions that will be irreversible.

Congress also should immediately require external regulation of the department's HLW tank cleanup and, specifically, DOE's disposal of radionuclides, by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the affected states.

Finally, Congress should launch a public debate on an appropriately protective cleanup standard for the HLW tanks.