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The U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site outside Aiken. File/Staff 

The U.S. Department of Energy is studying whether radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site is safe enough to treat and ship out of South Carolina, a move that could speed the site’s cleanup.

The government on Wednesday said it’s changing the rules about what counts as “high-level” radioactive waste — material considered too dangerous to store anywhere but deep underground.

The move could cut costs and mark a broader change that impacts nuclear sites across the country. But some nuclear watchdogs warned that it could also make Americans less safe by cutting corners on how waste is stored.

For decades, high-level waste had been classified based on how it was produced, not what it was made of. The Energy Department will now chiefly consider a waste's radioactivity.

Paul Dabbar, the Energy Department’s under secretary for science, described the new strategy as a “science-based approach” that focuses on “what’s in it,” not where the waste came from.

The new rules will lead to a review of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater stored at the Savannah River Site, south of Aiken, government documents show. State officials have called waste at SRS the state's most significant environmental threat. 

Under the new rules, the reclassified waste could be shipped to storage facilities in Texas or Utah. When classified as “high-level” waste, the government was out of options. Under federal law, it could only go to a permanent repository like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which hasn't opened and faces an uncertain future.

The agency’s new interpretation could ease that logjam, changing rules with roots dating back to the 1950s.

Five environmental groups, including South Carolina-based Savannah River Site Watch, issued a joint statement Wednesday decrying the move, saying the waste needs to be stored in deep, geologic formations so it won’t endanger public health.

Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Trump Administration is trying to undo long-established protections with its new interpretation.

“No matter what they call it, this waste needs a permanent, well-protected disposal option to guard it for generations to come,” he said. “Pretending this waste is not dangerous is irresponsible and outrageous.”

“High-level” radioactive waste has long been defined as materials resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Basically, it’s the legacy of building America’s nuclear arsenal.

That waste is currently stored — some would say trapped — in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington state.

The states don’t want it, and politicians and environmentalists alike have long been frustrated with the cost and pace of the work. At the Hanford Site in Washington state, the anticipated cleanup costs now exceed $320 billion despite remediation efforts that have been under way for years.

The wastewater at SRS was generated during work at the site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility, which encases nuclear sludge in glass. The new review will determine if that wastewater could be treated, sorted and then sent for long-term storage in Texas or Utah, according to government documents.

Getting the wastewater away from SRS would be in-step with the government’s overarching goal there: remediation. Millions of gallons of nuclear waste are kept at the site in aging underground storage tanks, a situation that state officials monitor closely.

Dabbar said the department was "very excited" to reduce environmental risks in the Palmetto State. Tank cleanup at SRS will proceed as planned, he said. 

The waste announcement follows on the heels of a recent announcement of a new contract for the Savannah River Site that focuses on the management of nuclear materials and millions of gallons of radioactive waste there. But Dabbar said the timing of the two moves is coincidental.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has expressed support for the new rules for classifying waste. Six national labs under the DOE's purview, including the Savannah River National Laboratory, also backed the change, according to a March 25 letter obtained by the Aiken Standard.

"The national laboratories are supportive of a revised interpretation for high-level radioactive waste and willing to provide any resources to ensure successful implementation of the final policy," reads the letter, which includes the signature of SRNL Director Vahid Majidi.

The letter later states the new interpretation would provide an "immediate" health and safety boon to workers, the surrounding communities and the environment.

Dabbar said the letter from the labs influenced the DOE's decision.

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Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.