Energy Department’s shallow solution for radioactive waste: downgrading its danger

Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP

The U.S. Department of Energy has decided to ignore 50 years of agreement across the country on the management and disposal of the most toxic, radioactive waste in the world. By issuing a new interpretation of what qualifies as “high-level radioactive waste,” the agency is taking itself off the hook for properly disposing of more than 100 million gallons of waste at storage sites in South Carolina, Idaho, and Washington. Under the law, high-level waste—which remains dangerous for millenia—must be disposed of in deep, geologic formations, specially designed to avoid exposing the public and wildlife to potential harm. But instead of complying with the law, the Trump administration’s answer is to reclassify the radioactive waste in these problem areas as less dangerous, “low-level” waste, abandon it in shallow storage tanks in South Carolina and Washington, and attempt to ship some of the reclassified waste to sites in New Mexico or Texas that should never receive it and have never consented to store it. These solutions reduce the Energy Department’s financial burden at the cost of public safety. 

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