Up & Atom

The US Department of Energy (DOE) issued a Supplemental Federal Register Notice on June 5 that addresses its interpretation of what constitutes high-level radioactive waste (HLW). The DOE said the notice reflects DOE policy modifications informed by public comments it received during the 90-day public comment period after it issued the initial Federal Register Notice on October 10, 2018. DOE stated that it received roughly 360 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 (NRC).

The DOE said its HLW interpretation is intended to facilitate the safe disposal of defense reprocessing waste based primarily on the radiological characteristics of the waste, and whether it can be disposed of safely in a facility other than a deep geological repository. As DOE stated in the October 10 notice and reiterated in the supplemental notice, the department 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. According to the DOE, its HLW interpretation does not change or revise any current policies, legal requirements, permits, or agreements.

DOE also announced that it is initiating a public process under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to analyze the potential environmental impacts associated with disposing of certain waste from the Savannah River Site at a commercial disposal facility outside South Carolina that is licensed by either the NRC or an Agreement State under 10 CFR Part 61 to receive low-level radioactive waste (LLW). DOE stated that it is currently not considering whether to apply the HLW interpretation at any other site or for any other waste stream. In addition, decisions about whether and how this interpretation of HLW will apply to existing wastes and whether such wastes may be disposed of as non-HLW will be the subject of subsequent actions.

As background, the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended (AEA) and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982, as amended, define the term “high-level radioactive waste” as:

  1. 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
  2. other highly radioactive material that the [Nuclear Regulatory] Commission, consistent with existing law, determines by rule requires permanent isolation.

According to the policy, the DOE interprets these statutes to provide that a reprocessing waste may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste

  1. does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in 10 CFR § 61.55, 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.

We will continue to monitor this matter and provide updates as appropriate. Read more on HLW and DOE’s interpretation.