DOE Publishes Interpretation on High-Level Radioactive Waste

On June 5, 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sent a supplemental notice to the Federal Register that provides the public with its interpretation of high-level radioactive waste, informed by more than 5,000 public comments.

For decades, DOE has managed nearly all reprocessing waste streams as high-level radioactive waste regardless of radioactivity.  According to the Department, however, this one-size-fits-all approach has led to decades of delay, costs billions of dollars and left the waste trapped in DOE facilities in the states of South Carolina, Washington and Idaho without a permanent disposal solution.


Moving forward, DOE’s interpretation is that reprocessing waste streams are defined by their characteristics, not just how they were made.  With this new interpretation, DOE states that the Department will pursue new avenues for the responsible and safe treatment and removal of lower level waste that has been languishing at DOE sites, while protecting the environment and the health and safety of local communities.

According to DOE, this interpretation does not change or revise any current policies, legal requirements, permits or agreements.  Decisions about whether and how this interpretation of high-level radioactive waste will apply to existing wastes and whether such wastes may be disposed of as non-high-level radioactive waste will be the subject of subsequent actions.  Any actions to implement the high-level radioactive waste interpretation will be done on a site-specific basis with appropriate engagement with affected stakeholders.

DOE is also issuing a separate Federal Register notice initiating a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis to determine the potential environmental impacts of the disposal of a Savannah River Site reprocessing waste stream as non-high-level radioactive waste at a commercial disposal facility licensed to receive low-level radioactive waste.  The Department will continue to work with the affected local communities on this analysis and the path forward for cleanup at Savannah River.


DOE manages large inventories of legacy waste resulting from spent nuclear fuel (SNF) reprocessing activities from atomic energy defense programs – i.e., nuclear weapons production.  DOE also manages a small quantity of vitrified waste from a demonstration of commercial SNF reprocessing.  Reprocessing generally refers to the dissolution of irradiated SNF in acid, generating liquid or viscous wastes and the chemical processing to separate the fission products or transuranic elements of the SNF from the desired elements of plutonium and uranium, which are recovered for reuse.  Liquid reprocessing wastes have been or are currently stored in large underground tanks at three DOE sites:  the Savannah River Site (SRS) in South Carolina; the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho; and, the Office of River Protection at the Hanford Site in Washington.  Solid reprocessing wastes are liquid wastes that have been immobilized in solid form and are currently stored at SRS, INL and the West Valley Demonstration Project in New York.

DOE’s interpretation of high-level radioactive waste is that reprocessing waste is non-high-level radioactive waste if the waste:

  1. does not exceed concentration limits for Class C low-level radioactive waste as set out in section 61.55 of title 10, Code of Federal Regulations; or,
  1. 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 regulatory requirements.

Under DOE’s interpretation, waste meeting either of these criteria is non-high-level radioactive waste and may be classified and disposed of in accordance with its radiological characteristics.

In October 2018, DOE issued a Federal Register notice the public comment period on the Department’s interpretation of the definition of the statutory term high-level radioactive waste as set forth in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.  The Federal Register notice stated that, at this time, DOE is not making (and has not made) any decisions on the disposal of any particular waste stream.  Disposal decisions, when made, will be based on the consideration of public comments in response to the Federal Register notice and prior input and consultation with appropriate state and local regulators and stakeholders.  DOE will continue its current practice of managing all its reprocessing wastes as if they were high-level radioactive waste unless and until a specific waste is determined to be another category of waste based on detailed technical assessments of its characteristics and an evaluation of potential disposal pathways, according to the Federal Register notice.

For further information, see 83 Federal Register 50,909 (October 10, 2018). 

For additional information, please contact Theresa Kliczewski at or at U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Environmental Management, Office of Waste and Materials Management (EM–4.2), 1000 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20585 or at (202) 586-3301.

For more information on high-level radioactive waste and DOE’s interpretation, go to