Department of Energy Proposes Relabeling High-Level Radioactive Waste By Sydney Pegues, Public Health Grassroots Organizing and Communications Intern

On January 9th, Georgia WAND submitted comments to the Department of Energy (DOE) regarding the DOE’s proposal to reclassify high-level radioactive waste as low-level waste. Georgia WAND’s comments are below:

The Department of Energy is proposing reclassifying “high-level” radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons as “low-level” waste. This reclassification, which would affect sites all over the United States including the Savannah River Site, would cut the cost of cleaning radioactive nuclear waste by $40 billion, by leaving the waste where it already is. Currently, high-level radioactive waste is defined by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission as the highly radioactive byproducts of the reactions that occur inside nuclear reactors. Given the health concerns associated with such highly radioactive materials, its disposal and containment are a public health challenge. Previous administrations have struggled with the problem of how to safely dispose of our nuclear waste, and none have come up with an adequate answer. The proposed re-labeling is an attempt at ignoring and burying a serious environmental hazard, and is being advertised as a “cost effective solution.” As we are at a critical point in our fight against climate change, we cannot afford irresponsible decisions that will have detrimental effects on our bodies and our environment (To read the report on the effects of climate change on nuclear reactors by Georgia WAND and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), click here).

Low-level waste, which represents about 90% of the waste that comes from facilities where radioisotopes are used or produced like nuclear power stations and local hospitals, primarily consists of wipes, clothes, and plastics. These are materials that come in contact with radiation through cleaning or other routine activities, and though they have been contaminated with radiation, they do not release radiation themselves. Due to their low levels of radiation, they can be safely disposed of by being buried in the ground. The same cannot be said for high level radioactive waste. There is already documentation of highly radioactive nuclear waste buried in underground tunnels in the United States leaking into the soil and water supply of neighboring communities. Giving radioactive waste the same toxicity classification as gloves that have come in contact with radiation is disingenuous.

Nuclear contamination is concerning considering Georgia is located downwind and downstream from the Savannah River Site (SRS). Contamination from high-level radioactive waste that gets buried in the ground from a potential low-level waste reclassification would leech into our waterstream, compounded with what’s already being carried through the air. Radioactive isotopes from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington were reported to be carried by the wind as far as Idaho, so it is safe to say that radiation from a site in neighboring South Carolina can be carried here. It is difficult to definitively quantify the radiological exposure in Georgia as there has been no radiological monitoring by Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) since 2004.

For more information on high-level nuclear waste, click here.

For more information on contamination from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, click here and here.