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News from the National Academies
Date: March 1, 2005
Contacts: Bill Kearney, Director of Media Relations
Megan Petty, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

New Process Needed to Decide Which Radioactive Wastes
Should Be Exempt From Deep Underground Disposal;
Recommendations Made on Accelerating Cleanup at DOE Sites

WASHINGTON -- The nation needs to establish a formal, "risk-informed" approach to decide what types and amounts of radioactive waste at U.S. Department of Energy sites should be buried or left in place rather than shipped to a geological repository, such as the one proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev., says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council.

"Given the controversy surrounding this issue and the reality that not all of the waste will or can be recovered and disposed of off-site, the country needs a structured, well-thought-out way to determine which wastes can stay," said David E. Daniel, chair of the committee that wrote the report and dean, College of Engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "Information about the relative risks posed by various disposal options is vital to the decision-making process, and that information must be developed in a manner the public can trust."

The committee did not identify specific wastes that should be approved for alternative disposal. It did find, however, that it is "technically impractical and unnecessary" to remove every last gram of high-level radioactive waste now stored in steel tanks at DOE sites in South Carolina, Washington, and Idaho. Some transuranic waste currently buried at these sites -- which consists of contaminated tools, clothing, and other debris -- may not need to be removed either. The committee did not comment on how waste remaining on-site should be disposed of.

The risk to workers and the environment involved in recovering some hard-to-retrieve waste, as well as the cost of doing so, may not be worth the reduction in risk -- if any -- that is achieved by disposal in a geological repository, the committee concluded. It also noted that techniques exist to separate highly radioactive material from some wastes, greatly reducing the potential hazard of what remains.

The committee recommended that DOE and other interested parties implement a six-step decision-making process based on risk and other factors before any waste is exempted from deep geological disposal. The report describes the characteristics of such a process and provides an example that is compatible with existing regulations, but it does not prescribe a specific process. Each risk assessment should undergo outside technical review, and approval or rejection of the exemption should be in the hands of a separate federal entity as well. It was beyond the committee's charge to say which agency should be given this authority, but it noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission both have expertise in regulating radioactive material.

DOE should form an authoritative and independent group to improve and implement its approach to risk assessment and community outreach, the report recommends. The disposal exemption process needs to take place with as little disruption as possible to current laws, regulations, and agreements, the committee added. It acknowledged that recent litigation has left some of DOE's waste-disposal plans uncertain, but said that a new exemption process is needed regardless in order to foster stakeholder support and avoid ad-hoc approaches, which often result in inconsistent or poorly thought-out decisions.

A second Research Council report issued today says DOE should consider extending the life of facilities used to treat and process radioactive waste at weapons and storage sites in Idaho, South Carolina, Washington, and Tennessee. DOE currently plans to shut down these facilities when they are no longer needed at each site, but the report says they could potentially be used to process radioactive waste from other sites, thereby accelerating overall cleanup efforts. Closing the facilities prematurely could seriously delay the overall cleanup of contaminated sites, the report adds.

The cleanup also could be accelerated by declassifying contaminated equipment left over from the Manhattan Project, according to the report. As long as this equipment remains classified, only employees with security clearance can work with it. Declassification could help shorten cleanup time and decrease costs. In visits to the sites, the committee that wrote the report also noticed that buildings posing little risk were being destroyed despite DOE's declared strategy of targeting the most significant risks first.

The committee recognized that some wastes and contaminated equipment will be left in place. To ensure the long-term safety of what remains, the report recommends that DOE follow the "cocooning" approach now being used to secure reactors at the Washington site. This concept involves stabilizing and monitoring wastes and making adaptations as new knowledge emerges, while keeping all stakeholders clearly informed.

Simplifying and standardizing the requirements for determining what transuranic waste can be shipped to a disposal facility in New Mexico would also quicken the overall cleanup. A previous Research Council report found that some characterization activities are apparently conducted for regulatory compliance and do not seem to reduce risk. Consistent approaches to the preparation of wastes destined for Yucca Mountain are needed as well.

The two studies issued today were sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. Committee rosters follow.

Copies of Risk and Decisions About Disposition of Transuranic and High-Level Radioactive Waste and Improving the Characterization and Treatment of Radioactive Wastes for the DOE's Accelerated Site Cleanup Program are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


[ This news release and the reports are available at http://national-academies.org ]


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on Risk-Based Approaches for Disposition of Transuranic and High-Level Radioactive Waste

David E. Daniel * (chair)
Dean
College of Engineering, and
Gutgsell Professor of Civil Engineering
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign

John S. Applegate (vice chair)
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and
Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law
School of Law
Indiana University
Bloomington

Lynn R. Anspaugh
Research Professor
Division of Radiobiology
School of Medicine
University of Utah
Salt Lake City

Allen G. Croff
Manager of Environmental Quality R&D Program Development
Biological and Environmental Sciences Directorate
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (retired)
Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Rodney C. Ewing
Professor
Departments of Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences, Geological Sciences, and Materials Science and Engineering
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Paul A. Locke
Senior Associate
Environmental Health Sciences, and
Visiting Scholar
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore

Patricia A. Maurice
Professor of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, and
Director
Center for Environmental Science and Technology
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Ind.

Robin Rogers
Professor of Chemistry, and
Director
Center for Green Manufacturing
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa

Anne E. Smith
Vice President
Charles River Associates
Washington, D.C.

Theofanis G. Theofanous *
Professor
Departments of Chemical Engineering and Mechanical and Environmental Engineering, and
Director
Center for Risk Studies and Safety
University of California
Santa Barbara

Jeffrey J. Wong
Deputy Director for Science, Pollution Prevention, and Technology Development
California Department of Toxic Substances Control
Sacramento

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Micah Lowenthal
Study Director

Darla J. Thompson
Research Associate


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Division on Earth and Life Studies
Board on Radioactive Waste Management

Committee on Opportunities for Accelerating Characterization and Treatment of
Waste at DOE Nuclear Weapons Sites

Milton Levenson * (chair)
Consultant
Menlo Park, Calif.

Cynthia Atkins-Duffin
Chief of Staff
Energy and Environment Directorate
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Livermore, Calif.

Patricia J. Culligan
Associate Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics
Columbia University
New York City

Robin Dillon-Merrill
Assistant Professor
McDonough School of Business
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

Lloyd A. Duscha *
Consulting Engineer
Reston, Va.

Thomas F. Gesell
Professor of Health Physics;
Director
Technical Safety Office; and
Director
Environmental Monitoring Program
Idaho State University
Pocatello

Carolyn L. Huntoon
Consultant
Barrington, R.I.

Barry Scheetz
Professor of Materials and of Civil and Nuclear Engineering
Pennsylvania State University
University Park

Laura Toran
Associate Professor and Weeks Chair in Environmental Geology
Department of Geology
Temple University
Philadelphia

Raymond G. Wymer
Consultant
Oak Ridge, Tenn.


RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

John R. Wiley
Study Director


* Member, National Academy of Engineering