Originally created 08/24/06

Safety rules slow nuclear waste cleanup

AIKEN - When Congress passed legislation in 2004 that allows the Department of Energy to classify and bury its own nuclear waste, some feared the lack of an independent regulator would give the agency too much control.

But limited oversights included in the law are proving rigorous.

Too rigorous, according to a July 31 letter the DOE fired at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Although the DOE has the final say about its nuclear waste, including about 36 million gallons at Savannah River Site, it must consult with the NRC before making decisions, including the amount of radioactivity it plans to bury at sites such as SRS.

In its letter, the DOE asserts that the NRC has become more of a regulator than a consultant because of its strict review standards.

The law states that Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman "is the exclusive decision maker for determining whether radioactive waste resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel at certain DOE sites is high-level radioactive waste," according to the letter written by David R. Hill, the agency's general counsel.

The law "assigns the NRC a limited role as an informed consultant to aid the secretary in making such waste determinations," wrote Mr. Hill, who also asked the NRC to get rid of its 153-page set of review standards.

Officials with the NRC say the standards are just part of the agency's detail-oriented process.

"Congress has an interest, the people of South Carolina have an interest, to make sure this cleanup is done effectively," said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC.

"The NRC is supposed to give some confidence that it can be done safely and effectively," he said. "DOE has chafed at that. They want to do it in closed meetings. They want it fast. Their view of consultation appears to be a quick 'OK.'"

The Natural Resources Defense Council says the DOE needs more regulation, not less. Legislation that gave the DOE its classification power was drafted to bypass a 2002 defense council lawsuit that was slowing the process.

"These are important cleanup issues that need to be as transparent and open as possible so people can know how the public health and environment are going to be protected in the long term," said Geoff Fettus, an attorney with the defense council who has litigated the issue.

"We're talking about a lot of radioactivity."

The liquid radioactive waste at SRS is stored in 49 tanks. The DOE is mixing the most harmful quantities with glass and is supposed to ship it out of state, presumably to the Yucca Mountain burial site in Nevada.

Less radioactive quantities will either be buried on site or left in the tanks and covered in grout. The DOE and state officials continue to wrestle over the amount of radioactivity that will be left behind.

At the same time, officials with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control want older tanks emptied and closed because of fears that they'll leak.

The disagreement between the DOE and the NRC creates a perplexing position for the state: On one hand the DOE is blaming the NRC process for tank closure delays; on the other the NRC's stringent review requirements could create a safer process.

"We value the NRC review and input on the waste determination," said Shelly Sherritt, a DHEC liaison to SRS.

"Our concern is the process will take so long that it will cause the DOE to miss the compliance deadlines."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.


The Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continue to hash out how they will work together regarding the burial of nuclear waste.


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