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Cleanups Risks at Nuclear Sites
Analyzed by Scientists

March 2, 2005

A significant amount of radioactive waste from Cold War bomb-making should remain at former production sites, and several locations should be kept open longer than planned to treat waste from elsewhere, scientists have recommended.

Reports by two panels of the National Academies urged the Energy Department to revamp its massive $140 billion cleanup plans for defense nuclear waste with the goal of transporting less of it to a central facility.

This would allow cleanup activities to be completed sooner and cost less, the panels said. The current cleanup schedule, involving dozens of sites, envisions most waste treatment and disposal to be finished in 20 years.

States with some of the biggest cleanup challenges including Washington, Tennessee, Idaho and South Carolina, have argued that high-level defense nuclear waste should be taken away for deep geological burial.

But a National Research Council panel, asked to review the government program, concluded that the "recovery of every last gram" of such waste "will be technically impractical and unnecessary."

In some cases removing waste could lead to increased human exposures to radiation, the panel said. It also said the expense associated with retrieval, immobilization and disposition of some of the waste in a central repository "may be out of proportion with the risk reduction achieved, if any."

Another National Research Council panel issued a companion report. It recommended that the Energy Department use waste treatment facilities that will handle cleanup efforts at the most contaminated sites to treat waste from other defense sites. That would require those facilities to stay open longer than planned.

Such use of treatment facilities at the Hanford site in Washington state, the Savannah River Site complex in South Carolina, the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho would accelerate overall cleanup efforts, the report says.

How far the Energy Department should go to clean up the environmental damage left over from decades of bomb-making and the pace of the cleanup have sparked intense debate between the federal government and states.

Citizen activists and state officials argue that the federal government is required to remove as much of the highly radioactive waste left over from bomb-making as is technically possible. Such waste, they say, should go to an underground disposal site known as WIPP in New Mexico or the Yucca Mountain high-level waste dump proposed in the Nevada desert.

"Given the controversy surrounding this issue and the reality that not all of the waste will or can be recovered and disposed of off-site, the country needs a structured, well-though-out way to determine which wastes can stay," said David Daniel, chairman of the panel of scientists that wrote the report on what wastes should be exempted from deep geological burial.