Originally created 09/01/06

Waste burial talks cancelled

AIKEN - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cancelled a Thursday meeting with the U.S. Department of Energy because, officials said, the DOE wanted to keep the doors shut and the public out.

Specifically the DOE doesn't want a lot of open discussion about the burial of radioactive waste at the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site complex, NRC officials say. The NRC, according to law, is supposed to review the DOE's plans for waste burial but the DOE says the NRC is going too far.

The two sides had planned to find common ground this week.

Instead, the DOE's push for secrecy has angered environmentalists and politicians alike. The Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the DOE in 2002 to block the burial of radioactive waste, told the NRC in a letter this week that it is "dismayed" that meetings already have been held behind closed doors.

U.S. Reps. John Spratt Jr., D-S.C., and John Dingell, D-Mich., also expressed concerns to the NRC.

"The disposition of high-level radioactive waste is an issue of great concern for South Carolina and our country," they wrote in a letter. "This is a matter of enormous public interest, and we believe the public should not be barred from meetings on the subject unless a significant national security concern is being discussed.

"Even then, only that portion of the meeting dealing with sensitive should be closed."

This isn't the first time the DOE has asked to shroud its meetings with the NRC.

According to a Monday story by Platts Inside Energy, a Washington trade publication, DOE Deputy Secretary Clay Sell lobbied the NRC in April to hold some meetings with the DOE about waste burial in secret to avoid public scrutiny of the sensitive issue.

"This is such a hot-button issue," one NRC official told the publication. "DOE is basically unhappy with this whole thing, because it puts them in the public light, which is not something that they really like."

Dave McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, confirmed Thursday that Mr. Sell had indeed asked NRC officials to hold closed meetings, and that at least two meetings between the NRC and DOE since June had been held away from the public.

Discussion about the NRC's role in the process won't be, though, he said.

"The ball is in their court to justify why any such meeting should be closed," he said.

DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said the closed meetings were about technical review issues and that the public would get its chance to speak out later.

"At the end of the day, this Department is focused on moving forward and getting our work done to best carry out our mission and the provisions of the law," she said. "We're committed to the safe storage and ultimate disposal of tank waste working in consultation with our federal and state partners."

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


The liquid radioactive waste at Savannah River Site is stored in 49 tanks. The Department of Energy 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 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 remain. At the same time, officials with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control want older tanks emptied and closed because of fear that they will leak.


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