Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

'Irresponsible and Outrageous': Trump DOE Redefines 'High-Level' Nuclear Waste to 'Low-Level' to Cut Corners on Disposal Costs

Politics
The Savannah River Site in South Carolina is one of three Defense Reprocessing Waste Inventories where the Department of Energy will be reclassifying nuclear waste as safer than it has for decades. Savannah River Site / Flickr

By Julia Conley

In a move that will roll back safety standards that have been observed for decades, the Trump administration reportedly has plans to reclassify nuclear waste previously listed as "high-level" radioactive to a lower level, in the interest of saving money and time when disposing of the material.


The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to observe a new interpretation of which nuclear waste qualifies as "high-level waste," which must be disposed of deep underground to avoid contaminating the surrounding environment. Under the new standards, radioactive materials at three nuclear sites will be classified as low-risk, enabling officials to dispose of the waste in shallow pits.

The Hanford Site in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Idaho National Laboratory all contain millions of gallons of sludge and other waste following decades of use by the DOE, which reprocessed nuclear rods at the sites when the department was extracting plutonium for hydrogen bombs.

The DOE for decades classified any material that was created during reprocessing as high-level waste, but it will now label the sludge at the three sites as safe due to its level of radioactivity.

Under the new rules, the waste — which includes toxic and radioactive elements such as uranium and plutonium — can now be stored in shallow pits that may leak into the surrounding soil.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential race, slammed the Trump administration for "unilaterally" deciding to potentially put Washington residents and their environment at risk, without consulting with the states in question — going against previous agreements between the states and the federal government.

"By taking this action, the administration seeks to cut out state input and move towards disposal options of their choosing, including those already deemed to be unsafe by their own assessments and in violation of the existing legally binding agreement," Inslee said in a statement. "We will consider all options to stop this reckless and dangerous action."

The Energy Department claims that downgrading the risk level of the sludge is necessary to allow for faster clean-up of the sites and to save money for the federal government — a claim which "flies in the face of sound science and judgment," according to Columbia Riverkeeper, a non-profit group which aims to protect Washington state's Columbia River.

"The Trump administration's attempt to cut corners with nuclear waste undermines effective, long-term cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Site," said Lauren Goldberg, legal and program director at the organization. "People in the Pacific Northwest value clean water and strong salmon runs."

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called the DOE's move "irresponsible and outrageous."

"The Trump administration is moving to fundamentally alter more than 50 years of national consensus on how the most toxic and radioactive waste in the world is managed and ultimately disposed of," said Geoff Fettus, senior attorney at NRDC. "No matter what they call it, this waste needs a permanent, well-protected disposal option to guard it for generations to come."

At the Seattle-based newspaper The Stranger, Katie Herzog wrote that the DOE's action is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to "change the definition" of a problem to avoid addressing it effectively.

Recently, the Trump administration has also sought to change the official government definition of the poverty line to avoid paying for government benefits for struggling families, and the definition of domestic violence to limit the funds that go to agencies serving survivors.

Reclassifying dangerous elements, one critic wrote on social media, "doesn't mean it's going to make it any less harmful to the public."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A plane drops fire retardant over a home as the Apple Fire burns during the coronavirus pandemic on Aug. 1, 2020 in Cherry Valley, California. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Southern California's first major wildfire this year has devoured more than 20,000 acres since Friday and forced thousands to flee their homes in the midst of a pandemic.

Read More Show Less
Water trickles down a hillside among moss next to the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault during a summer heat wave as mountains behind stand devoid of snow on Svalbard archipelago on July 29 in Longyearbyen, Norway. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

By Johnny Wood

What better place to build a Doomsday Vault than the remote, snow-covered islands of Norway's Arctic Svalbard? Sitting around 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, the facility is buried in permafrost to protect the precious seed samples housed there. But a freak heatwave is causing the region's ice to melt.

Read More Show Less
Tens of thousands of people attend a Black Lives Matter protest which was mainly peaceful on June 6 in London, United Kingdom. Phil Clarke Hill / In Pictures / Getty Images

As climate activists, we can't fight the climate crisis without considering the systemic impacts that environmental racism and White supremacy have on the frontline communities most affected by pollution and our warming world.

Read More Show Less
Whooping cranes fly in Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama. There were only 48 whooping cranes in the country when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and thanks to the law's protections there are now over 600. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Eoin Higgins

Environmental groups on Friday condemned the announcement of a new rule proposed by President Donald Trump that would further weaken the Endangered Species Act by making it easier to destroy habitats vulnerable species rely on for survival.

Read More Show Less
Students at the "Japon" public school number 72 attend class during the first day of the final phase of the gradual process to reopen schools on June 28 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Ernesto Ryan / Getty Images

By Bob Spires

As American school officials debate when it will be safe for schoolchildren to return to classrooms, looking abroad may offer insights. Nearly every country in the world shuttered their schools early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have since sent students back to class, with varying degrees of success.

Read More Show Less
Tara Moore / DigitalVision / Getty Images

By Danielle Nierenberg and Maya Osman-Krinsky

In the United States, over 2,000 acres of agricultural land are sold every day for housing or commercial development, according to the American Farmland Trust. This has especially affected Black farmers who, since 1920, have seen nearly a 90 percent decline in land ownership, according to the U.S. Census.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A Malayan porcupine photographed at Kaeng Krachan National Park, Phetchaburi, Thailand. Jason Thompson / CC BY 2.0

By John R. Platt

A porcupine's diet is wide, varied, and a little hard to digest. A lifetime of grasses, herbs, bark and other vegetation can leave little bits of indigestible matter behind in a porcupine's digestive tract, where they occasionally congeal into a hard ball called a bezoar.

Read More Show Less