DOE Proposes to Redefine High-Level Radioactive Waste

According to DOE, the revised interpretation, "if implemented through subsequent actions," could provide a range of benefits to both DOE and the public.

The U.S. Department of Energy published a Supplemental Notice Concerning U.S. Department of Energy Interpretation of High-Level Radioactive Waste on June 5, saying that it now interprets the statutory term "high-level radioactive waste" as set forth in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (AEA), and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended (NWPA), so that some reprocessing wastes may be classified as non-HLW and may be disposed of in accordance with its radiological characteristics.

The agency also published a notice June 5 that it will be drafting an Environmental Assessment, a form of National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 analysis, on a plan to dispose up to 10,000 gallons of stabilized (grouted) Defense Waste Processing Facility recycle wastewater from the Savannah River Site at a commercial low-level radioactive waste disposal facility located outside South Carolina and licensed by either the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or an Agreement State.

DOE had proposed the new interpretation in October 2018, asking for comments. The agency received a total of 5,555 comments, with only roughly 360 of them being distinct, unrepeated comments, from members of the public, Native American tribes, members of Congress, numerous state and local governments, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. DOE said it has not made, and does not presently propose, any changes or revisions to current policies, legal requirements, or agreements with respect to HLW, and decisions about whether and how this interpretation of HLW will apply to existing wastes and whether such wastes may be managed as non-HLW will be the subject of subsequent actions.

The AEA and NWPA define "high-level radioactive waste" as: (A) the highly radioactive material resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, including liquid waste produced directly in reprocessing and any solid material derived from such liquid waste that contains fission products in sufficient concentrations; and (B) other highly radioactive material that the NRC, consistent with existing law, determines by rule requires permanent isolation.

DOE's revised interpretation of the statutes provides that a reprocessing waste may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste meets either of the following two criteria: 1) does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in section 61.55 of title 10, Code of Federal Regulations, and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility; or 2) does not require disposal in a deep geologic repository and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility as demonstrated through a performance assessment conducted in accordance with applicable requirements.

According to DOE, the revised interpretation, "if implemented through subsequent actions," could provide a range of benefits to both DOE and the public, including these:

  • Reducing the length of time that radioactive waste is stored on site at DOE facilities, increasing safety for workers, the public, and the environment
  • Removing reprocessing waste from the states where it has been stored for decades and providing for the disposal of these wastes in facilities constructed and regulated for such purposes
  • Enhancing safety at DOE sites by using lower-complexity waste treatment and immobilization approaches
  • Aligning the United States with international guidelines for management and disposal of radioactive waste based on radiological risk
  • Utilizing mature and available commercial facilities and capabilities to shorten mission completion schedules and reduce taxpayer financial liability
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