BOISE, Idaho - Environmental groups contend the U.S. Department of Energy's attempt to reclassify residual nuclear waste could threaten aquifers in three states.
A lawsuit in U.S. District Court asks that the Energy Department not be allowed to reclassify former waste storage tanks buried in the ground at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington and the Savannah River Site near Aiken.
The tanks held millions of gallons of liquid acid that was used to reprocess spent fuel rods until the late 1990s. The rods were bathed in the liquid, which extracted the uranium but left behind a highly radioactive stew of other metals along with the acid.
The waste fluid was stored in buried tanks. Although much of it has been pumped out and processed into a more inert, solid form, a residual sludge remains in the tanks, coating the bottoms and sides.
About 800,000 gallons of sludge remain in 10 tanks at the Idaho site. The Energy Department plans to remove all but about 1,000 gallons in each tank, said department spokesman Brad Bugger.
The Energy Department has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to reclassify the remaining sludge and tanks at a level that would allow them to be filled, capped with cement and abandoned in place.
"We think that is a violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, and that they are using regulatory rule-making as a sleight-of-hand way to define away the problem," said Gary Richardson, the director of the Snake River Alliance.
The Snake River Alliance is joined by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Yakima Nation in the legal action.
The lawsuit isn't new; the groups renewed the claim last week after review by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which sent it to the lower court in Boise.
The Energy Department must respond by April 30. Oral arguments are set for July 22 in Boise before U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill.
Mr. Bugger said the federal government still does not know how it will deal with residual waste that is pumped out of the tanks.
"It is our intention to remove it. The question then is what to do with it once it is out of the tanks," Mr. Bugger said.
One option is to develop technology that would extract all but the highest-level waste and ship the remaining material to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
Mr. Bugger also said the department has not decided whether to abandon the remaining waste and tanks. Another option might be to dig the tanks out of the ground.
"That would be extremely expensive and could expose workers to radiation fields," Mr. Bugger said. A study on that option is expected to be released sometime this summer.
Idaho has its own agreement with the federal government, which stipulates that the waste is to be removed from the state by 2012 or any further waste shipments to the state will be halted. Craig Halverson, the program manager for the site's oversight office, said Idaho's position includes any residual sludge.
Mr. Bugger said whatever treatment plan it authorizes must also be approved by the state.