Nicholas K. Geranios, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, June 6, 2019 1:53AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 6, 2019 6:15AM EDT
SPOKANE, Wash. — The U.S. government on Wednesday will reclassify some of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste to lower its threat level, outraging critics who say the move would make it cheaper and easier to walk away from cleaning up nuclear weapons production sites in Washington state, Idaho and South Carolina.
The U.S. Department of Energy said labelling some high-level waste as low level will save US$40 billion in cleanup costs across the nation’s entire nuclear weapons complex. The material that has languished for decades in the three states would be taken to low-level disposal facilities in Utah or Texas, the agency said.
“This administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower level waste,” Energy Undersecretary Paul Dabber said. “This will accelerate cleanup and reduce risk.”
The agency will maintain standards set by the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety,” Dabber said.
Critics said it’s a way for federal officials to walk away from their obligation to properly clean up a massive quantity of radioactivewaste left from nuclear weapons production dating to World War II and the Cold War.
The waste is housed at the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina, the Idaho National Laboratory and Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state – the most contaminated nuclear site in the country.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential candidate, and state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the Trump administration is showing disdain and disregard for state authority.
“Washington will not be sidelined in our efforts to clean up Hanford and protect the Columbia River and the health and safety of our state and our people,” they said in a joint statement.
The new rules would allow the Energy Department to eventually abandon storage tanks containing more than 100 million gallons (378 million litres) of radioactive waste in the three states, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council.
The change means that some of the “most toxic and radioactive waste in the world” would not have to be buried deep underground, the environmental group said.
“Pretending this waste is not dangerous is irresponsible and outrageous,” group attorney Geoff Fettus said.