U.S. to import nuclear waste from 41 nations

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Energy Department said Monday it will import about 20 tons of nuclear waste from research reactors in 41 countries to prevent the weapons-grade material from being used for bombs.
“The policy demonstrates the Clinton administration’s leadership in reducing the global nuclear threat by removing nuclear bomb material from civilian commerce,” Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary said in a statement.
O’Leary has long favored importing the waste, rather than helping other nations store it or leaving it for them to reprocess.
Much of the material comes from Europe, with lesser amounts from Australia, Asia and South America. It includes about five tons of highly enriched uranium that could be extracted from spent nuclear fuel and used to produce nuclear weapons.
Over the last 40 years the fuel was sent overseas by the United States for medical and research purposes. Now the used fuel is building up and foreign countries want the United States to take it back for disposal.
The bulk of the material — 19 metric tons — will go to the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., for indefinite storage. One metric ton of non-aluminum-clad spent fuel will be shipped to the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
A metric ton is equal to 2,200 pounds.
Shipments to South Carolina, which will be made through the Charleston (S.C.) Naval Weapons Station, are expected to begin late this summer. Shipments to Idaho will come through the Concord Naval Weapons Station near Concord, Calif., and will begin in mid-1997.
The Energy Department says it will take 13 years to import all the waste.
The Energy Department plans to spend $20 million in South Carolina over the next year and up to $1 billion over the 40-year life of the program to improve packaging and storage of the bomb-grade uranium, which is kept in underwater pools.
State officials have been fighting the plan, having lost suits to block previous shipments.
Following Monday’s announcement, Gov. David Beasley was reviewing his legal options, a spokeswoman said.
The Energy Department announced that shipments to Idaho would be made in accordance with a settlement with the state, which allows up to 61 shipments from foreign research reactors prior to the year of 2000.
The Energy Department plans to spend $1.7 billion over 40 years in Idaho, which is also storing other spent nuclear fuel.
Most of this money will be reimbursed through fees to the foreign companies that now hold the material.
This is the first large-scale importation of nuclear waste, although two small shipments were made in 1994 and 1995 from five European countries. That material went to the South Carolina facility.
The decision was hailed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We believe the environmental risks are quite small and the non-proliferation benefits are important and significant,” said Thomas B. Cochran, senior scientist and director of nuclear programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This program is necessary to wean the globe off of the commercial use of nuclear energy including nuclear weapons,” Cochran said, repeatedly deemphasizing the risks.