Source: The SlateJune 7, 2019

Of all the things in the world to worry about, nuclear waste management is not at the top of most people’s lists. We trust (or hope, at least) that expert scientists and policymakers will make good decisions about how to make sure radioactive byproducts stay far, far away from us, by whatever means possible. But, many of those experts say, we’re going to need to figure out a new way to manage our country’s nuclear waste—and soon.

To that end, the Department of Energy announced Wednesday that they are reclassifying the definition of “high-level,” or highly radioactive, waste stored in underground tanks at Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, and the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls. The DOE hopes that the redefinition will expedite cleanup of the waste. Currently, the high-level waste stored at these sites is waiting for the government to open a secure waste repository (like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which has been in limbo for decades). But if some of the less radioactive waste qualifies under the new definition, it might instead be shipped off to other sites, like one in Texas, where it could be mixed with “concrete-like grout.” The cleanup at Hanford has already cost the country billions of dollars and is projected to cost billions more as we continue the search for the waste’s final home. (Adding some urgency to developing a new plan is the risk that containers could leak and contaminate the environment, especially if there’s an earthquake in Washington.)

The DOE’s new plan could be cost-effective, sure, but the question is whether it’s safe. When the agency first announced reclassification plans in October 2018 and solicited public comment, the proposal received thousands of responses. And Washington state officials are not happy; Gov. Jay Inslee and Department of Ecology Director Maia Bellon have both sent letters of concern to the DOE. “I am gravely concerned with DOE forging ahead with a new interpretation of HLW that does not comport with federal law, despite objections from Washington state,” wrote Bellon.

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