Representatives from multiple communities that host nuclear activities publicly supported a proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy to change its definition of high-level nuclear waste (HLW), potentially downgrading some HLW to either low-level or transuranic (TRU) waste.
If the waste is deemed TRU, it could be sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.
If it is low-level, the waste could be disposed of at the generator site, or in a surface-level repository.
There is no repository for HLW in the United States, as the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada stalled.
A 60-day public comment period was opened in October and ends on Dec. 10.
The proposal would alter how the DOE classifies HLW. It currently considers any waste resulting from nuclear fuel production as high-level, regardless of its actual nuclear characteristics.
If approved, the change would allow the DOE to base its characterization on the actual radiation level and other radioactive elements present in waste stored throughout the country.
Ron Woody, who serves as chairman of the Energy Communities Alliance and county executive for Roane County, Tennessee which hosts Oakridge National Laboratory, said many local leaders are supportive of the move.
“Most local governments support DOE clarifying the definition high-level waste at both sites where the waste is currently located and the potential receiver sites,” Woody said.
Rick McLeod, CEO of the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization said reclassifying some HLW could improve the management of the country’s nuclear waste.
“As the hosts, sender and receiver sites for the federal government’s HLW, we support DOE’s efforts to examine alternative disposal pathways for waste in our communities that, under the current interpretation based on artificial standards, can only go to a HLW repository.
“If DOE moves to more appropriately align disposal decisions based on actual risk, some of this waste may be safely managed as transuranic or low-level waste and can be moved out of our communities sooner while saving significant taxpayer dollars.”
John Heaton, chair of the Eddy Lea Energy Alliance in Carlsbad near the WIPP site said the change could save taxpayers billions by removing the waste from the generators sites, reducing payments for associated utilities.
“Defining waste by its source rather than what it actually is, is an antiquated approach that strands waste at sites when safe disposal pathways are actually available,” Heaton said.
“Disposal decreases the risk and eliminates billions of dollars in future costs associated with oversight of the millions of gallons of waste in storage tanks at our defense sites.”
Pam Larsen, executive director of Hanford Communities in Washington and near the DOE’s Hanford Site commended the federal agency for considering the needs and perspectives of local communities that host nuclear facilities.
She said transparency is essential for the DOE to understand the impact of the proposal.
“Allowing the people most directly impacted by DOE decisions to provide input early in the process, DOE can more fully understand the challenges and opportunities related to a shift in how this waste is characterized and build support,” Larsen said.
“It could also bring the U.S. in line with how other countries around the word manage nuclear waste.”
Critics of the move cited safety concerns with reclassifying and potentially moving what is now classified as HLW to facilities intended for less radioactive material.
Edwin Lyman, senior scientist of Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists said it technically makes sense to classify waste based on its actual characteristics, but he worried the definition could be “misused.”
“The DOE should not be making any changes in its requirements that would result in a reduction of safety,” he said. “We’re concerned with a possible misuse of this definition.”
Lyman worried the change could provide cheaper and potentially less secure waste streams for the waste.
“If the intention is to reclassify highly dangerous radioactive waste, so it can be disposed of in a less safe and secure manner, that would be the wrong outcome,” he said. “It makes sense to classify the waste by it’s actual characteristics. That’s a complex analysis process.”
As for WIPP, Lyman said some HLW could be reclassified to meet TRU waste criteria, but it must be done safely.
He pointed to an accidental radiological release in 2014, which led to shutting down the facility for three years, due to improper packaging of a drum of TRU waste.
“If this were imposed, and waste was placed there meeting the requirements, the devil is in the details,” he said. “WIPP is designed certain materials. We’ve seen what can happen when those (requirements) aren’t followed. You have to tread very carefully.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.
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