Opinion Extra

Op-ed: DOE offers path to long-overdue progress at Savannah River

The Savannah River Site near Aiken is home to deadly high-level nuclear waste
The Savannah River Site near Aiken is home to deadly high-level nuclear waste File photograph

For more than three decades, the federal government has been telling you about its plans to treat and remove the Cold War radioactive waste languishing at Department of Energy sites.

Historically, DOE has managed nearly all of this waste as high-level waste, or hlw, despite the fact that much of it is less radioactive. HLW requires a complex and costly process called vitrification, where the material is mixed with molten glass and then buried deep underground.

This one-size-fits-all approach by previous administrations has led to decades of delay and billions of dollars in maintenance costs, and left the waste trapped at DOE facilities in Washington, South Carolina, and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution.

Meanwhile, lower-level waste streams — with radioactivity levels similar to medical waste from the use of nuclear isotopes — have been routinely and safely disposed of in existing Nuclear Regulatory Commission or state-licensed commercial facilities for decades.

Different levels of waste should involve different management and disposal solutions. If we are ever to make meaningful, near-term progress on the removal of this waste from states where it has been stored for decades and appropriately disposed of elsewhere, we need to change our approach to the challenge.

This administration is now proposing a responsible, science-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of much of the lower-level waste currently housed near your community.

Following a period of public comment, DOE recently published a supplemental Federal Register notice laying out its new interpretation of what constitutes HLW. Going forward, reprocessing waste will be defined according to how radioactive it is, not just how it was made.

So rather than just labeling all Cold War reprocessing waste as HLW, DOE will analyze each waste stream individually and dispose of it accordingly, with the goal of getting more of the lower-level radioactive waste out of South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho. DOE is starting with an analysis of material from the Savannah River Site, and any future analyses of other materials for potential disposal will involve a similar level of public involvement and engagement with stakeholders.

This new approach will not change or revise any current policies, legal requirements, permits or agreements with respect to HLW and how it is managed. Rather, it will allow for a case-by-case scientific analysis in accordance with NRC standards, to identify any less radioactive waste streams that may be classified as non-HLW. However, DOE will make no determinations about the application of this interpretation on any specific waste stream and its disposal without public involvement.

We expect that this new approach will offer more options to explore dealing with lower level waste in a safe, more efficient and environmentally responsible manner. But most importantly, it will lift generations-old barriers to the removal of this waste from DOE facilities so that your children and grandchildren aren’t left to deal with it.

We at DOE are looking forward to working with all elected officials, regulators and stakeholders on proposals to get lower level waste out of South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho, and disposed of once and for all.

If your goal is to get radioactive waste out of South Carolina quickly and efficiently while improving the public health and safety of our environment, this new interpretation should be viewed as long-overdue and welcome news.

Paul Dabbar is the Under Secretary for Science at the U.S. Department of Energy.