A way apparently has been found that will get the accelerated cleanup project at the Savannah River Site back on track.
The project was dealt a severe setback last summer when a federal judge ruled that the Department of Energy's plan to reclassify residual sludge in tanks at SRS and other nuclear weapons sites from high-level radioactive nuclear waste to low-level waste violated the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
That act requires nuclear facilities to route all their high-level N-waste to the permanent storage facility approved, but not yet built, at Yucca Mountain, Nev. The energy agency is charged with removing strontium-90, plutonium, uranium and other highly radioactive wastes from tanks that have held the nuclear bomb-making substances for nearly five decades during the Cold War.
That highly radioactive waste is extremely expensive and difficult to remove. Reclassifying it and treating it on site would save $16 billion in cleanup costs and shorten SRS cleanup time by 23 years, according to the energy agency that sought the reclassification.
But the federal court said no, the agency cannot arbitrarily reclassify nuclear waste to suit its convenience.
The ruling made sense, but it wreaked havoc with the accelerated cleanup plan. DOE is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to get Congress to change the law to allow the agency to reclassify the contaminated waste.
More successful is U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham's proposal, which he got included in the defense bill approved last week by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Although the measure applies only to the Savannah River Site, it could serve as model legislation for other states concerned about residual liquid radioactive waste left in DOE facilities.
The South Carolina senator's plan would allow DOE to leave in place the highly radioactive sludge that lines the tank's sides and bottom, but it would have to be diluted with grout, thus turning it into "low level" nuclear waste in accordance with the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The provision, said Graham, still "allows South Carolina and DOE to define high-level waste in a very reasonable manner. There's nothing going to be left behind ... that will not be secured through environmental remediating to protect South Carolina."
The next move is to make sure the Graham plan stays in the defense bill as it works its way through the rest of Congress. The stakes are high. DOE was planning to withhold cleanup funds if it couldn't move ahead on its accelerated cleanup project. The Graham plan would put the agency back in business.