Trump Wants to Reclassify Radioactive Waste from Nuclear Weapons to 'Low Level' so Disposal Is Cheaper

President Donald Trump's administration reportedly plans to reclassify high-level radioactive waste scattered around the U.S. in order to make it easier and cheaper to dispose of.

The Department of Energy intends to relabel high-level radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons as low-level, the Associated Press reported.

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Currently, high-level radioactive waste is defined as that which is a byproduct of fuel reprocessing (where leftover fissionable material is separated from the waste) or from nuclear reactors.

Low-level waste, on the other hand, represents around 90 percent of all such waste, according to the American Nuclear Society, and generally comes from facilities where radioisotopes are used, such as nuclear power stations, and local hospitals. Items often include wipes, clothes and plastic.

In the U.S., 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste is being temporarily stored as successive administrations have grappled to find a long-term solution. Storing nuclear waste safely presents a number of challenges: it needs to be protected from natural disasters, and stopped from seeping into the surrounding water and soil, while its radiation blocked. Thieves must be kept from accessing it, and so too future generations who may not understand how toxic such materials are.

The Associated Press reported the agency said the reclassification would shave $40 billion off the cost of cleaning up after the production of nuclear weapons.

A Department of Energy official told Newsweek it is requesting public comment on its interpretation of the meaning of the statutory term of high-level radioactive waste through the federal register. It based the consultation on reports and recommendations by outside entities, including the Government Accountability Office, Energy Communities Alliance, National Research Council, MIT, and the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Energy Future, the official said.

"At this time, DOE is not making and has not made any decisions on the classification or disposal of any particular waste stream," the official continued. They did not confirm reports the move would save $40 billion, or whether it was a cost-cutting exercise.

Facilities which would be affected include the country's most highly contaminated: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, which takes up an area half the size of Rhode Island. Opened in 1943, the site produced the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, according to its website. The production of nuclear materials carried on until 1987, leaving behind waste that threatened the local environment, prompting the state and federal authorities — including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency — to pledge in 1987 to clean up the site, without success.

Other facilities mentioned in the plans are the Savannah River Plant, South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory, according to the Associated Press.

Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge nuclear watchdog, told the Associated Press the "cleanup of the site is really at stake."

The organization wants the authorities to clean up Hanford, stabilize the waste, and establish a national repository elsewhere to bury it long-term.

Alex Smith, Program Manager of the State of Washngton Department of Ecology Nuclear Waste Program, which is involved in the Hanford project, told the Associated Press: "They see it as a way to get cleanup done faster and less expensively."

The consultation originally ran from October 10 until December 10. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden for Oregon requested a public consultation on the proposal be extended to January 9.

Commenting on the Hanford facility, Wyden wrote to the Department of Energy, according to the Associated Press: "Lowering the bar for level of protection of future generations and the environment by changing the definition of what has always been considered high-level waste requiring permanent disposal is a significant change."

Malcolm Grimston, an advocate for nuclear power and senior research fellow at the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, Imperial College London, told Newsweek: "From an environmental point of view society has better things to do with billions of dollars—for example deploying more low-carbon energy (including nuclear) to address climate change."

Deep geological disposal of highly radiative waste is the ideal world solution, but relatively few countries have succeeded in setting up such sites.

"Storage in other facilities is, therefore, de facto the policy for some decades at least. Altering the categorization of some of the highly active wastes would presumably allow for a more proportionate approach to their management, with overall beneficial environmental effects if the released resources went into other environmental programmes. Of course, whether Mr. Trump would actually use the savings to improve environmental matters elsewhere is highly dubious but future administrations may take a different view."

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President Donald Trump pictured at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, on November 30, 2018. His administration plans to reclassify nuclear waste to make it cheaper and easier to dispose of. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated with comment from a Department of Energy official and Malcolm Grimston.

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