Thursday, August 31, 2006

Feud Over Nuclear Waste

NRC, DoE feud over nuke waste:
A meeting between U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Department officials, scheduled for Thursday morning, was cancelled Wednesday in an ongoing row over which agency has what authority over nuclear weapons waste disposal.

The rift is over interpretation of a 2004 defense bill that split the responsibility of disposing millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste between the two.

The Energy Department doesn't like the NRC's proposal for how to consult with and monitor the department's efforts and General Counsel David R. Hill sent a letter July 31 asking the NRC to nix it and meet to come up with new guidelines.

"I was surprised at the tone of the letter that Hill sent," NRC Chairman Dale Klein said Wednesday at a news conference at the Washington offices of leading energy news service Platts.

But, Klein said, that letter was sent as part of the public comment over the guidelines and so any meeting needs to be held in public.

Klein, who is two months into the chairman post, said the guidelines would remain on the table and that though "discussing and brainstorming" meetings could be closed, an NRC-Energy Department meeting on the issue "if it's held, will be open."

The matter has taken a strenuous turn, with two prominent Congressmen condemning the Energy Department's private meeting efforts and allegations that a top department official pushed for closed sessions himself.

Congress addressed the weapons waste debate in the Ronald Reagan National Defense Authorization Act of fiscal year 2005, after the department's original plan was overturned in court.

Now constitutional, the department wants to empty the tanks of high-level, radioactive waste at various sites, fill them with concrete grout and call it low-level waste. Opponents say it still poses a risk and should only be housed with other highly radioactive waste in a permanent repository (which has yet to be built).

Two provisions in the bill are at the crux over Energy Department and NRC's at-odds interpretation. It states the Energy Secretary, "in consultation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," will determine if its methods lower the threat enough and the NRC will "monitor disposal actions."

The NRC's Standard Review Plan was a draft proposal for how that would happen, which Hill writes in the letter is "a fundamental misreading" of the law by usurping the Energy Secretary's authority and in effect make the NRC a regulator of the department.

The two sides will have to settle these qualms to move forward; the Thursday meeting was intended to do that. Megan Barnett, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said the meeting was for purely technical discussions and didn't warrant being open.

No final decisions would have been made, she said, those would be public.

"This department is focused on moving forward and getting work done," Barnett said.

An Aug. 25 article in Inside Energy, a Platts publication, said the insistence on a private meeting came all the way from the top of the Energy Department. It cited an anonymous NRC source that Deputy Energy Secretary "Clay Sell was over here in April lobbying [the NRC commissioners] personally."

This prompted Reps. John Dingell, D-Mich., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member of the House Budget Committee to urge Klein to open up the meeting.

"This is a matter of enormous public interest, and we believe the public should not be barred from meetings on the subject unless a significant national security concern is being discussed," the Congressmen wrote in an Aug. 29 letter to Klein.

"Even then, only that portion of the meeting dealing with sensitive issues should be closed," they wrote, adding public participation in this process was what Congress wanted and the absence of it would set a trend of secrecy for future nuclear waste disposal they warned against.

Klein told reporters "the burden will, in my view, have to be on DOE to justify it being closed."

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