High-Level Radioactive Waste (HLW) Interpretation

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HLW Interpretation News

Aiken Standard - Editorial: Energy Department takes steps in waste cleanup at SRS
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it was reinterpreting the term “high-level radioactive waste.”
June 18, 2019
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The Columbian - Letter: Hanford reclassification is wise
DOE has proposed under their Order 435.1 is to actually classify all the waste in the 177 Hanford tanks based on their content, not their origin.
June 16, 2019
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Aiken Standard - Letter: Interpreting the Meaning of High-Level Waste
The DOE has taken a step to expedite the process by considering an interpretation change to what actually is classified as high-level waste.
June 13, 2019
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The State - Op-ed: DOE Offers Path to Long-Overdue Progress at Savannah River
For more than 30 years the federal government has been telling about its plans to treat & remove Cold War radioactive waste languishing at DOE sites.
June 13, 2019
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Tri-City Herald - Editorial: State Needs to Listen to Tri-Citians on New Nuclear Waste Plan at Hanford
When Tri-Cities leaders weigh in on Hanford issues, state officials should listen.
June 7, 2019
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Tri-City Herald - PNNL Backs Technical Merits of Fed’s Controversial New Radioactive Waste Policy
PNNL and five other DOE national laboratories strongly support the technical merits of DOE’s revised interpretation of high level radioactive waste.
June 6, 2019
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Newsweek - The Trump Administration is Downgrading Toxic Nuclear Weapons Waste To Cut Disposal Costs—Should We Be Worried?
DOE is moving forward with plans to reclassify toxic nuclear waste from Cold War weapons research, downgrading some of it from the highest level.
June 6, 2019
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HLW Interpretation Overview

Learn more about DOE’s New Interpretation of High Level Waste
High Level Waste Interpretation
Learn about the Energy Department's new interpretation of high-level radioactive waste. 

HLW Interpretation Background

On October 10, 2018, The Department of Energy (DOE) issued the Federal Register Notice, Request for Public Comment on the U.S. Department of Energy Interpretation of High-Level Radioactive Waste (83 FR 50909), on its interpretation of the definition of the statutory term “high-level radioactive waste” (HLW) as set forth in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (AEA), and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended (NWPA).  A 90-day comment period, including a 30-day extension to submit comments, invited public input in order to better understand stakeholder perspectives, and to increase transparency and enhance public understanding of this issue.  DOE received a total of 5,555 comments, roughly 360 of which were distinct, unrepeated comments, from a variety of stakeholders: members of the public, Native American tribes, members of Congress, numerous state and local governments, and one federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

On June 5, 2019, DOE issued the Supplemental Notice Concerning U.S. Department of Energy Interpretation of High-Level Radioactive Waste.  As DOE stated in the October 10 Notice and reiterated in the Supplemental Notice, DOE interprets the statutory term such that some reprocessing wastes may be classified as not HLW (non-HLW) and may be disposed of in accordance with its  radiological characteristics.  The Supplemental Notice provided additional explanation of DOE’s interpretation as informed by public review and comment. 

DOE has not made, and does not presently propose, any changes or revisions to current policies, legal requirements or agreements with respect to HLW.  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. 

On June 5, 2019, DOE issued the Federal Register Notice, Environmental Assessment for the Commercial Disposal of Defense Waste Processing Facility Recycle Wastewater from the Savannah River Site, that informs the public that DOE will be drafting an Environmental Assessment, a form of National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 analysis, on a waste stream at the Savannah River Site. 

HLW Definition and DOE’s Interpretation

The AEA and NWPA define the term “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 [Nuclear Regulatory] Commission, consistent with existing law, determines by rule requires permanent isolation.

DOE has revised its interpretation, as stated in its October 10, 2018, Federal Register Notice, after consideration of public comments.  Based on those comments, DOE interprets the statutes to provide that a reprocessing waste may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste meets either of the following two criteria: 

I) 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

II) 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.

Current Locations for DOE Defense Reprocessing Waste Inventories

Current Locations for DOE Defense Reprocessing Waste Inventories

DOE Reprocessing Waste Inventory

Reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel began in the 1940s and continued through much of the Cold War as part of the development of nuclear weapons.  Weapons development activities occurred primarily at the Hanford Site in Washington and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.  Reprocessing activities supporting nuclear research and development (R&D) and naval propulsion programs occurred at the Idaho National Laboratory.  Reprocessing waste from West Valley, New York, is not included in this inventory of defense waste.  The West Valley Demonstration Project operates under a distinct statutory and regulatory basis pursuant to the West Valley Demonstration Project Act (Public Law 96-368), which provides a definition of HLW separate from the AEA and the NWPA.  

Each reprocessing waste stream has unique radiological characteristics -- therefore, the HLW interpretation will be implemented on a site-specific and waste stream-specific basis.  The map below identifies sites with reprocessing waste potentially impacted by the HLW interpretation.

Benefits

The HLW interpretation, if implemented through subsequent actions, could provide a range of benefits to both DOE and the public, including:

  • 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 U.S. 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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