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DOE considers new classification for some nuclear waste

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Energy opened a public comment period Thursday afternoon on a proposal to change how it classifies “high-level” nuclear waste.

Currently, all waste that was created as a byproduct of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel is considered “high-level radioactive waste.”

In a call with reporters Thursday morning, a DOE official said that under the proposed updated interpretation, some of the solid and liquid wastes from reprocessing would be classified as “non-high-level waste” if they met one of two criteria.

“I think that DOE has the responsibility to continuously explore innovative ways to perform our cleanup, which continues to be protective of worker safety, human health and the environment and (this) would be one of those ways,” he said. “We’re continuously looking to do things better.”

The official emphasized that the change in interpretation does not include any information on or plans for how specific waste streams – or the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico – could be affected.

“At this time, the department is not making and has not made – key points here – any decisions on the classification or disposal of any particular waste stream,” he said. “DOE is not presupposing, nor should anyone presuppose the outcomes of the Federal Register notice process.”

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said he’s not opposed to the DOE looking at possibly reclassifying waste, but the proposal in its current form “doesn’t make the cut.”

“In general, it’s not a terrible idea for them to think about it, but it has to be rigorously science-based and maintain a very high level of public health and safety and the proposal they have I don’t think guarantees that,” Lyman said.

Albuquerque-based WIPP watchdog Don Hancock said he fears this could be part of a DOE effort to get more waste to WIPP.

If the high-level waste were classified as transuranic waste, it could be eligible for shipment to the underground repository.

“Obviously, my organization and lots of others will oppose and object to this reclassification,” Hancock said.

Efforts to reprocess spent nuclear fuel used in power plants ended under President Jimmy Carter in 1977, leaving that waste in storage at DOE sites around the country to this day.

Lyman said there is highly radioactive liquid waste being stored on the order of “hundreds of millions of gallons,” including in tanks at Hanford Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

“I think the challenge they’re facing is that because there is no high-level waste repository like Yucca Mountain on the horizon, and plans for nuclear waste legacy sites depend on that waste eventually leaving the site, they are desperately looking for other options,” Lyman said.

The DOE official said the public comments gathered during the 60-day period will inform the department’s actions.