Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 30 No. 19
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May 10, 2019

Perry Supports DOE Reconsideration of High-Level Waste Definition

By Chris Schneidmiller

Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday voiced support for his agency’s potential reinterpretation of the definition of high-level radioactive waste.

The Department of Energy proposed the reinterpretation in October and is now reviewing public comments submitted through Jan. 9 on the matter.

Ultimately, DOE could determine the definition should emphasize the radiological threat waste poses to human health, rather than where or how it was generated. That could open the door to disposal methods now prohibited for high-level waste.

The department has not given a timeline for a decision.

“This issue is about identifying not where waste comes from, whether it’s from a weapons program or whether it’s from a civil nuclear program, and that’s how we decide where this waste goes at this particular point in time,” Perry said during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce energy subcommittee. “I think it makes abundant good sense for us to identify this waste by its radioactivity levels, rather than where it comes from. And that’s what we’re talking about doing.”

The point is to place waste based specifically on the radioactivity level, Perry said under questioning by subcommittee Vice Chairman Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.). ”That’s what we’re trying to decide.”

McNerney suggested the reinterpretation could lead to high-level waste being dispoosed of “in less secure sites.” He asked Perry to specify the amount of material DOE is considering reclassifying. The DOE chief did not provide a specific figure.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 define HLW as highly radioactive material that comes from spent nuclear fuel. That generally involves separating contents in irradiated nuclear fuel and target materials, such as plutonium.

There is roughly 90 million gallons of solids, liquids, and sludge left over from decades of nuclear weapons production, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said in 2012. By law, that material must go into a geologic repository – which the United States does not yet have, after decades of efforts to bring the Yucca Mountain disposal site into existence.

Some high-level waste that is redesignated as another waste type could be shipped to the Nevada National Security Site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, and the privately held Waste Control Specialists facility in West Texas, the nongovernmental Energy Communities Alliance has said. The Washington, D.C.-based group, which represents communities near DOE sites, has said it does not expect any decision from the department until late 2019.

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