The Trump administration’s plan to reclassify some forms of nuclear waste could be good for South Carolina if it hastens moving vast amounts of radioactive and toxic waste out of the state. But without any coherent way for permanently storing the dangerous material, there are no guarantees the Savannah River Site will lighten its load anytime soon.
The idea, roundly criticized by environmentalists and anti-nuclear groups, is to reclassify waste based on radioactivity levels like most other nuclear nations do it, rather than basing classification on the nature of the substance or how it was produced.
According to the Department of Energy, reclassification could save about $40 billion in cleanup costs and help move waste languishing in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington state to storage sites in Texas or Utah. And some materials downgraded from high-level waste wouldn’t have to be eventually stored deep underground.
In South Carolina, that could pave the way for a variety of liquid wastes to be solidified through vitrification and other processes that would stabilize the waste for thousands of years and allow it to be moved to at least semi-permanent storage sites.
“At first blush, it looks like reclassification would allow stuff to get out of the state more easily,” said Rick Lee, a member of the governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council, adding that the roughly half-full Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico might be more willing to receive it.
Meanwhile, the federal government by law is required to move at least 1 metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium, not considered waste, from SRS each year through 2022. A half ton was quietly moved to Nevada earlier this year, infuriating leaders there.
Unfortunately, reclassification could be a double-edged sword: It might weaken arguments for moving materials that had once been classified as high-level waste. SRS now has about 10 million gallons of liquid waste, much of which could be reclassified as lower level waste if solidified.
Expect legal challenges. Previous attempts to change the definition of high-level radioactive waste, promulgated by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1970, have been struck down as recently as 2003.
“No matter what they call it, this waste needs a permanent, well-protected disposal option to guard it for generations to come,” said Geoff Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Pretending this waste is not dangerous is irresponsible and outrageous.”
Indeed, there’s good reason to view reclassification with extreme caution. It’s potentially dangerous to relabel, say, iodine-129 with a half-life of about 15 million years, by repackaging it, slapping on a skull-and-crossbones sticker and leaving it for future generations.
Reclassifying and moving some nuclear waste such as liquids liable athat are to leach into groundwater is a move in the right direction. But it is far from any grand solution for South Carolina or the nation.
Until humans can figure out how to shoot nuclear waste into the sun or entomb it in rock miles below the surface of the Earth (both are serious proposals), the federal government must devise a coherent national policy for storing weird elemental isotopes that can remain deadly for thousands, even millions of years.