The 2005 Defense Authorization bill currently sits in the laps of our Senators. As with many bills, legislation sneaks into the verbose language without the benefit of hearings or open discussions.
Riding in this bill is the possibility for the Energy Department to reclassify certain nuclear waste at weapons plants so they can be disposed of cheaper and quicker than under current law.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, inserted language in this broad military authorization bill that would give the Department of Energy an exemption to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which deemed all high-level waste be disposed of in a deep repository like the one being built at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
For years, the Energy Department has wished to separate the waste into two categories, reserving the costly and time consuming deep burial for waste with high radioactivity. Doing so, would allow them to trim billions of dollars from their cleanup budget and accelerate their pace.
On the surface this may seem like a reasonable solution for states longing to have waste controlled in some form. However, rushing the process will only create possibilities for more devastation and concern in the future.
Socially and environmentally, it will set a terrible precedent. Already, radioactive cleanups in Washington and Idaho are on hold until local governments reach similar agreements as those proposed in South Carolina.
Many of us are aware of the huge inventory of radioactive waste awaiting disposal at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. Some 37 million gallons sit in 51 underground tanks. Allowing this legislation to pass enables the Energy Department to leave a residue of radioactive sludge in the tanks and simply bury them under grout.
This could potentially impact future populations for thousands of years with releases of radioactivity into the Savannah River and regional drinking water. Not only could this be a local atrocity, but it will affect the handling of radioactive waste throughout the nation.
With minimal oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Department already sets many of its own waste disposal policies. Before signing this legislation, the Senate should consider the environmental and social challenges they will face in the future. The decision cannot be left to an agency striving for ways to overcome their massive waste problem.
What can you do?
Several senators are expected to offer amendments to remove the waste reclassification language. Tell your senators to create, support and vote for any amendments to remove the harmful nuclear waste provisions in the Defense Authorization bill.