Friday, May 7, 2004
Vote May Delay Changes at WIPP
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
An independent scientific analysis is needed before the nation's nuclear waste laws are rewritten to give the Department of Energy more latitude in disposing of its high-level waste, a House subcommittee recommended Thursday.
The committee's vote could delay DOE efforts to ship some of that high-level waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.
Congress needs an outside scientific evaluation of the issue, rather than simply accepting DOE's word on the proper way to deal with the waste, said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.
"We think it needs an external look," said Wilson. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which approved the call for an independent study.
At issue is a Department of Energy effort to win the authority to make its own decisions about what to do with buried tanks of high-level radioactive waste at nuclear weapon plants in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington state.
Currently, the waste, by law, is considered "high level" and must be packaged for eventual disposal at the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste site in Nevada.
The DOE hopes some of the waste can be declared "low level," which would allow it to be left where it is. DOE officials also want to send some of the tank waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Current law prohibits high-level waste at WIPP.
New Mexico state officials object to relabeling high-level waste so that it can be shipped to WIPP, a position Wilson supported Thursday.
"I don't think that the DOE should move high-level waste to WIPP just by redefining it," Wilson said in a telephone interview.
While Wilson and her House colleagues called for an independent study Thursday, a South Carolina senator took a different approach.
The legislation by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would allow DOE to proceed with its plans in South Carolina without the independent scientific review.
Graham last week worked out a deal with DOE to help out on the South Carolina portion of the problem, but critics had complained Graham's legislative language was written so broadly that it would also apply to all states.
Among other things, critics said Graham's proposed legislation would allow high-level waste to be shipped to WIPP.
In response, Graham rewrote his legislation so that it would apply only to waste that would be left in South Carolina.
Graham's rewritten language was included in the Senate Armed Services Committee's Fiscal Year 2005 Defense Authorization bill, which passed the Armed Services committee Thursday and now goes on to the full Senate.
House legislation, requiring the independent scientific study, goes to the full House Armed Services Committee next week.
If both bills pass their respective houses of Congress, a House-Senate conference committee would have to try to resolve differences between the two.
Geoff Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the House legislation calling for an independent study and criticized Graham's Senate bill.
An independent study is a good idea, Fettus said, as long as the panel chosen to do the work is "balanced."
Rewriting federal nuclear waste law as Graham's legislation would do, even for South Carolina alone, "sets absolutely the wrong precedent" by allowing DOE to define for itself what constitutes high-level waste, Fettus charged.
A lawsuit by Fettus' organization blocked DOE's efforts to unilaterally decide what to do with the waste, thus setting the stage for the legislative efforts.