Richardson commits to finding ways to dispose of nuke waste without burning

09-Jan-2001 10:19

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Outgoing Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Monday the government will attempt to find alternatives to incinerating low-level nuclear waste at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory at Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Richardson told about 250 Jackson Hole residents that he was accepting the recommendation of a panel appointed a year ago after a local outcry against the plan. Area residents feared burning the waste at the southeast Idaho facility would pollute the air around Jackson and Yellowstone National Park.

"There are currently no alternatives to incineration, but we need to begin to investigate them," Richardson said. He said the change in plans is due to public opposition to burning.

"The government, your government, especially the Department of Energy, which has not had the best record in environmental protection and restoration, has in this instance responded," Richardson said. "You raised your voice, we listened."

Most the waste was created during nuclear weapons production at the Rocky Flats plant outside Denver. It includes clothing and equipment, solid sludge and other material contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive and hazardous material.

Though there's no currently workable way of eliminating the waste except incineration, Richardson said the department is now convinced that burning poses unacceptable risks and that new methods now in the discussion stage need more study.

Methods to be examined include separating the contamination with various chemical washes and biological treatment.

Though public opposition spurred the change in policy, Richardson said there was sound basis for the new direction.

"These conclusions were not political, they were scientific," he said.

Richardson said he has added $3 million to the DOE budget for the next year to examine alternatives to burning. He is recommending the budget for the following year be increased from $10 million to $20 million.

He also requested $400,000 for a new laboratory at the INEEL to study soil and groundwater contamination. INEEL will receive an additional $1 million to support study of cleanup projects around the country.

Berte Hirschfield, president of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, an anti-incineration group, congratulated Richardson and said "the public needs to be an ongoing partner in the process" of finding alternatives to burning.

Hirschfield said the opposition in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana that inspired the DOE's policy change of policy must be extended to policy around the country.

"If incineration does not belong here it does not belong anywhere," she said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., said he was pleased by Richardson's announcement.

"There is no doubt that the stakes in this matter are high and something needs to be done with the waste being stored at the INEEL, but that does not mean we have to jump at the most convenient solution when something better is not only possible, but is possibly imminent," he said.