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Contaminated gear at Savannah River Site the focus of new DOE disposal study

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The Department of Energy plans to review whether equipment used in the treatment of radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site can be shipped out of South Carolina for commercial disposal, according to a notice circulated Wednesday.

Specifically, the department will examine if the contaminated gear, glass bubblers and pumps among the lot, can be classified as non-high-level radioactive waste – less hazardous than currently flagged, essentially.

Such a ruling, made possible by the Energy Department’s recent reinterpretation of the formal term high-level radioactive waste, would open options for accelerated disposition and cleanup of the site south of Aiken.

“Today, the Department of Energy is announcing further progress in utilizing science-driven solutions to achieve success in tackling the environmental legacy of decades of nuclear weapons production and government-sponsored nuclear energy research,” the department said in an emailed announcement.

Exactly when a draft environmental review will be ready is unclear.

If the equipment is deemed a certain type of less-dangerous waste, it could be sent to Utah or Texas for disposal, Energy Department documents show. EnergySolutions would receive it in the Beehive State; Waste Control Specialists would receive it in the Lone Star State.

The same teams were mentioned when the Energy Department debated reclassifying radioactive wastewater tied to the Defense Waste Processing Facility, a mammoth plant at the Savannah River Site that encases nuclear sludge in glass logs.

Eight gallons of the wastewater were ultimately trucked to Texas for disposal, marking the first real-world application of the DOE’s high-level radioactive waste reinterpretation. The contaminated equipment could, eventually, be the second.

Getting the tranche of wastewater out of South Carolina was crucial in demonstrating "that we could do something different and actually get something shipped out of state," Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar said last year. Selecting the tainted equipment for study appears to be another nod to the Palmetto State, where officials often rail against becoming a de facto nuclear waste dump.

The Energy Department in December issued a report to Congress suggesting more than $200 billion and years of work could be saved by reclassifying certain kinds of nuclear wastes. Upward of $5 billion could be saved at SRS alone, according to the analysis.

For years, the department defined wastes by their sources, from where they came. Under the reinterpretation of high-level radioactive waste, a waste’s characteristics – its radioactivity and the health concerns it poses, for example – are chiefly considered. That method is in line with international standards.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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