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Radioactive Tank Waste from the Past Production of Nuclear Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress

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How to safely dispose of wastes from producing nuclear weapons has been an ongoing issue. The most radioactive portion of these wastes is stored in underground tanks at Department of Energy (DOE) sites in Idaho, South Carolina, and Washington State. There have been concerns about soil and groundwater contamination from some of the tanks that have leaked. DOE proposed to remove the "pumpable" liquid waste, classify the sludge-like remainder as "waste incidental to reprocessing," and seal it in the tanks with a cement grout. DOE has argued that closing the tanks in this manner would be a cost-effective and timely way to address environmental risks. Questions were raised as to how much waste would be left in the tanks and whether the grout would contain the waste and prevent leaks. After considerable debate, the 108th Congress included provisions in the Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for FY2005 (P.L. 108-375) authorizing DOE to grout some of the waste in the tanks in Idaho and South Carolina. Congress did not provide such authority in Washington State. This report provides background information on the disposal of radioactive tank waste, analyzes the waste disposal authority in P.L. 108-375, discusses the implementation of this authority, and examines relevant issues.


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