DOE affirms its interpretation of high-level waste

December 22, 2021, 12:00PMRadwaste Solutions

With a notice published in the December 21 Federal Register, the Department of Energy has affirmed its interpretation of the statutory term “high-level radioactive waste” to mean that not all wastes from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel are HLW. The DOE said it interprets the statutory term such that some reprocessing wastes may be classified as non-HLW and may be safely disposed of in accordance with its radiological characteristics.

“DOE confirms that the HLWI [HLW interpretation] is consistent with the law, the best available science and data, and the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future,” the FR notice states.

Following a lengthy public comment period that began in October 2018, the DOE finalized its HLW interpretation in 2019, with a supplemental notice issued in June 2019. The interpretation was first implemented in 2020 on a single waste stream from the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

The criteria: As stated in the supplemental notice, the DOE concluded that reprocessing waste may be determined to be non-HLW if the waste meets either of the following two criteria:

  1. It does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in 10 CFR Part 61.55 and meets the performance objectives of a disposal facility.
  2. It 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.

By classifying waste according to its radiological characteristics rather than its origin, the HLW interpretation is a science-based tool to help further the tank waste cleanup mission across the United States, the DOE said.

Response: “While affirmation of the HLWI is a critical step in the right direction, it remains to be seen how and when the definition will be applied,” the Energy Communities Alliance said in response to the DOE’s affirmation. The ECA, an organization of local governments adjacent to or impacted by DOE activities, has long advocated for the more risk-informed interpretation, saying that it has the potential to reduce costs and expedite the cleanup of DOE facilities.

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