Trump’s DOE Wants to Reclassify Nuclear Waste to Save Money

The Trump administration has proposed reclassifying certain radioactive waste to make the disposal process less expensive for the government.

The AP reports that, “The proposal by the U.S. Department of Energy would lower the status of some high-level radioactive waste in several places around the nation, including the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state — the most contaminated nuclear site in the country.”

The report goes on to say, “The agency says the change could save the federal government $40 billion in cleanup costs across the nation’s entire nuclear weapons complex, which includes the Savannah River Plant in South Carolina and Idaho National Laboratory.”

Indeed, with just one site alone costing upwards of $2 billion per year, this move could save the government a significant amount of money. It might sound like a largely academic exercise, but environmental groups warn it has some significant consequences. To understand those, we need to know what the classification system actually means.

Types of Radioactive Waste

High-level radioactive waste is a byproduct of fuel reprocessing: waste from nuclear reactors or created during  nuclear weapons production. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) reprocessing programs produce large amounts of this kind of waste at sites such as Hanford, in Washington, as well as other commercial sites in places like New York.

High-level waste can only become harmless through decay, which in this case can take many hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, disposal of high level waste is incredibly time consuming, slow and costly.

Low-level radioactive waste, on the other hand, is not seen as such a threat. These are materials or objects that have been exposed to radioactive materials, such as workers’ clothing and shoes or animals who have died from radiation. Low-level radioactive waste can, however, include some highly radioactive objects. Because the radiation on these things decays more quickly, these items can often be stored in protective insulating barrels or containers on-site or moved to facilities that specialize in their management.

The DOE wants to reclassify some of that high-level radioactive waste as low-level, but many groups are not on board with this hasty change.

Why the Rush to Reclassify Nuclear Waste?

Grassroots environmental groups and state-level governmental groups are concerned that the DOE is rushing through its plans for this downgrade, which would change long-standing classifications,

For example, in a letter that Oregon’s Assistant Director for Nuclear Safety Ken Niles sent to the DOE,  Niles makes clear that, while the state does not necessarily oppose the downgrade out of hand and recognizes the Department has done some thorough investigations into certain aspects of this operation, there are still several unanswered questions.

Some of these issues are technical and hinge on what is done with sites after contaminated waste tanks have been removed and what changing classification standards will mean for the level of scrutiny future handling will require. Others speak to broader issues, such as whether this reclassification will in fact slow or even preclude further cleanup at sites like Hanford.

The letter says in part: “We believe that early closure of these tanks could also foreclose future cleanup of waste in the vadose zone or a chance to retrieve more waste from tanks in the future if more varied technologies are pursued. Furthermore, DOE’s decision to devote limited site resources to tank closure while the capacity to treat tank wastes is still under construction is not representative of a priority to reduce the highest impact risks at Hanford.”

The government is proposing filling the storage tanks at Hanford and other sites with grout and sealing them off. The areas surrounding the tanks would then also be sealed to prevent contamination. This would essentially leave about 90,000 gallons of waste in storage.

The issue is that sealing it in tanks would mean that there would be no easy way to continue removing the waste. It could also prevent future interventions, if and when we have found better ways of dealing with high-level radioactive waste.

Not everyone is opposed to the move, however.

Some independent commentators have said that, from a purely environmental standpoint, the savings could be channeled into environmental causes, such as improving low carbon energy systems. While they concede that the Trump administration wouldn’t be likely to use the money for that purpose, other administrations could do so.

The money could also potentially fund waste management innovations for the future, thus putting the problem on hold while investigating new technologies and processes that could clean up these waste sites. For projects that want to see sites like Hanford finally cleared, this will not be all that comforting, but in terms of broader-picture environmental policymaking, it is something to consider.

A DOE spokesperson has stressed to Newsweek that the Department has not made any decisions yet, saying, ”At this time, DOE is not making and has not made any decisions on the classification or disposal of any particular waste stream.”

This proposal comes against a backdrop of the Trump administration gradually unpicking safety and environmental safeguards in other areas of policy, so it isn’t unreasonable to be concerned about this proposed downgrade.The ramifications will be something people decades, if not centuries, from now will be dealing with.

Take Action

If this plan does move forward, we can’t trust the corrupt Trump administration to use the money it saves to support other environmental causes. We need to start holding his administration accountable. Sign and share this petition declaring that you support Democrats’ anti-corruption legislation.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.


Photo credit: Getty Images.


Lorrie O
Lorrie O1 months ago

Him a la ya. IMBcome...dienne. The N.

Daniel v
Daniel v2 months ago

its a disaster going to plaque us for centuries .and here in the USA ,most of it is stored on Native American sites, after all these people went true already. I don't think it would harm Trump. He is radio active already .

Louise R
Past Member 3 months ago


Richard B
Past Member 3 months ago

thanks for sharing

Christine Stewart
Christine Stewart3 months ago

store it in Trump's bedroom if it is so harmless!

Lindsay K
Lindsay K3 months ago

Nuclear waste could be called rosewater, but it would still be dangerous. If it's dangerous now, it will still be dangerous whatever it's called or classified as. Many thanks for sharing.

Leo C
Leo C3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

Shae Lee
Shae Lee3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

Virgene L
Virgene L3 months ago

It is frightening to think how contaminated our country could become. I do like the ideas of storing it at Mar-a-Lago! Maybe they could make cocktails from it! Drink up Trump.

Toni W
Toni W3 months ago