Storage and maintenance of high-level radioactive waste are expensive undertakings, and in an effort to trim costs, the Trump administration is considering what is sees as a simple solution: stop classifying nuclear waste as high-level.
According to Newsweek, and first reported by the Associated Press, the Department of Energy (DOE) wants to relabel high-level radioactive waste left behind after America’s nuclear weapons production as low-level, which would free up about $40 billion otherwise spent on more careful storage.
Currently, high-level radioactive waste is defined as that which is a byproduct of fuel reprocessing (where leftover fissionable material is separated from the waste) or from nuclear reactors.
Low-level waste, on the other hand, represents around 90 percent of all such waste, according to the American Nuclear Society, and generally comes from facilities where radioisotopes are used, such as nuclear power stations, and local hospitals. Items often include wipes, clothes and plastic.
In the U.S., 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is being temporarily stored as successive administrations have grappled to find a long-term solution. Storing nuclear waste safely presents a number of challenges: it needs to be protected from natural disasters, and stopped from seeping into the surrounding water and soil, while its radiation blocked. Thieves must be kept from accessing it, and so too future generations who may not understand how toxic such materials are.
A DOE official told Newsweek the move is not set in stone and will be open to public comment in the federal register.
It based the consultation on reports and recommendations by outside entities, including the Government Accountability Office, Energy Communities Alliance, National Research Council, MIT, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Energy Future, the official said.
"At this time, DOE is not making and has not made any decisions on the classification or disposal of any particular waste stream," the official continued. They did not confirm reports the move would save $40 billion, or whether it was a cost-cutting exercise.
Should the change go forward, numerous nuclear waste storage facilities will be affected, including some of the most contaminated sites in the country.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, which Newsweek noted is about half the size of Rhode Island, is one such site.
Opened in 1943, the site produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, according to its website. The production of nuclear materials carried on until 1987, leaving behind waste that threatened the local environment, prompting the state and federal authorities — including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency — to pledge in 1987 to clean up the site, without success.
The AP quoted Alex Smith, Program Manager of the State of Washington Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, as saying the Trump administration sees this move “as a way to get cleanup done faster and less expensively.”
Others see relabeling high-level waste as a way to save money that can be spent on more pressing environmental issues:
Malcolm Grimston, an advocate for nuclear power and senior research fellow at the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, Imperial College London, told Newsweek: "From an environmental point of view society has better things to do with billions of dollars—for example deploying more low-carbon energy (including nuclear) to address climate change."