NNMCAB Discusses Potential Impacts of DOE’s Possible Redefinition Of High-Level Radioactive Waste


The Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board is asking Department of Energy (DOE) Environment Management and New Mexico Environment Department to address the potential impacts of the possible redefinition of high-level radioactive waste (HLW) for the board.

The DOE recently asked for public comment on its interpretation of the definition of HLW as stated in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 in a notice published in the Federal Register. Although the comment period ends Dec. 10, Lee Bishop, deputy federal officer for the NNMCAB said comments from the NNMCAB would be accepted at any time and would not be subject to the deadline.

DOE’s current interpretation of HLW is that reprocessing waste is non-HLW if the waste does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in the Code of Federal Regulations or 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 regulatory requirements.

At the regular quarterly meeting of the board Nov. 7 in Santa Fe, Chair Stan Riveles said the possible redefinition was on the agenda not to have the board weigh in bit to draw board members’ attention to it because the board is encouraging DOE to move ahead on that issue so that DOE can move forward making decisions.

Board members discussed the potential impacts of additional HLW being transported across the state for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in Carlsbad. It was noted that a major permit licensing change would be needed at WIPP if the redefinition occurred and that possibly the entire WIPP charter would have to be rewritten. Board members also asked how this would impact the cleanup budget and if an environmental impact study would be needed.

Bishop said that unless specifically covered already, under the National Environmental Policy Act a study could have to be done.

“I have managed a couple of those documents – they’re usually about 3,000 pages and they take a couple of years to get through, because it goes through multiple public comment phases. I don’t want to diminish this, but this is a very small step in the overall process”, he said.

Board members discussed asking DOE-EM to help them and opted to put it on a future agenda while admitting that DOE-EM would not be able to answer many of the questions the board has such as what timelines are involved and how much legislation would be required.

“We would also be interested in the NMED’s reaction to this because they’re the ones who are going to have to carry the burden of implementing any proposal,” Riveles said.

Board members noted that obviously DOE has plans for the ultimate disposition of numerous waste streams if they’re estimating tens of billions of savings and that DOE must know where the waste is going to in order to estimate those savings. The Energy Communities Alliance in a paper issued in September 2017 estimated $40 billion or more could be saved on the remaining lifecycle cost of DOE’s EM program which is currently some $257 billion.

Bishop said if the board is interested DOE can have someone come out from the office that developed this redefinition and give a presentation to the board. He suggested  that board members can also submit comments to DOE asking basic questions not necessarily technical questions to voice their concerns as individuals or as a board.

“As a board, recommendations can come at any time and I wouldn’t pay a lot of attention to deadlines of Dec. 10,” he said.

Asked by the redefinition is being considered and if it is a budget decision, Bishop said it’s not what’s in the waste it’s where it came from. He said there’s waste at the Hanford site that doesn’t qualify to go to WIPP because it’s in a tank but yet it is chemically identical to the waste that’s already down at WIPP.

“You have the Atomic Energy Act here and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act here in this write up. There’s some fundamental thought processes in the Department and NRC – are we doing this right. NRC has classes of waste, DOE does not. DOE has transuranic waste. You ask an NRC person what transuranic waste is, technically they don’t know. They do, but in their world they don’t use those words. Even within the twin agencies you have discrepancy in waste management and I think some folks are looking at cleaning that up and they are looking at budgets and schedules and how can we make this more efficient and how we are our worst enemy by classifying waste the way we do. If it’s identical is it appropriate to send it all to the same disposal site,” Bishop said. “Clearly the interpretation is intended to bring the definition within DOE for HLW close to if not identical with the NRC classification. Is it close to or is it identical? Is it really a merging of the two definitions or is there still some daylight? I would say there’s still a small gap… but we’re trying to get as close as possible.”

Speaking during public comment, Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch, New Mexico said DOE is not looking at the redefinition of HLW as an academic exercise, that DOE has an end point in mind. He said the redefinition would definitely affect WIPP because the Savannah River and Hanford sites are “two DOE sites that are really driving this”. He said WIPP is “the only hole in the ground” and that additional waste going to WIPP could impact the cleanup at LANL. He noted that WIPP is “operating at a third of capacity”.

“All these proposals could hinder the ability of Los Alamos to clean up,” Coghlan said.

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