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

NCRP Releases Guidance for Radiation Protection in the United States

On February 4, 2019, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) announced the newest guidance for radiation protection in the United States with the publication of Report No. 180 titled, Management of Exposure to Ionizing Radiation: Radiation Protection Guidance for the United States (2018).

The report is intended to serve as a tool for those responsible for implementing radiation protection programs and developing regulations in the United States.

Interested stakeholders can purchase a copy of NCRP Report No. 180 at


NCRP Report No. 180 contains NCRP’s recommendations to guide active decision-making for radiation protection.  Key points for radiation protection in the NCRP guidance include:

  • the best protection guidelines are flexible and reflect current circumstances;
  • new topics are addressed that have emerged in the last 25 years; and,
  • medical use, stakeholder engagement, ethical values and safety culture are included and emphasized.

NCRP recommendations are intended to provide a basis for radiation protection programs in the United States.  Report No. 180 is primarily for federal and state agencies responsible for the well being of individuals exposed to ionizing radiation and those agencies with responsibility for protecting non-human biota from such sources.  The report also provides useful information for health physicists, medical physicists, physicians and other medical professionals, radiation safety officers, managers, workers, members of the public and the media.

Some of the categories of radiation protection that are discussed in NCRP Report No. 180 include:  medicine; worker safety and naturally occurring radioactive materials; public safety, including sensitive populations; environmental protection; emergency response; and, research and industry.

Issues and Analysis

NCRP Report No. 180 gives an integrated and coherent approach for radiation protection in all exposure situations.  The report states that optimization of protection universally applies, ensuring benefits from radiation taking into consideration societal, economic, and environmental aspects; addressing all hazards; and, striving for continuous improvement when it is reasonable to do so.

The report includes numeric criteria for individual dose management that provide an adequate basis for protection.  The recommended criteria are influenced by the type and knowledge of the source; the existence of an appropriate radiation control program; and, whether that program can be established in advance of introducing the source.

NCRP Report No. 180 also includes new topics that have emerged in the last 25 years and builds on the many NCRP recommendations issued since the previous recommendations in Report No. 116, which was issued in 1993.  The treatment of medical exposure is significantly expanded, including optimization for patients; coverage of comforters and caregivers; and, biomedical research participants.  Emergency workers are defined as a new category of exposure and NCRP recommends that they be handled separately from occupational exposure or public protection.  Protection of the environment, including non-human biota, is covered with recommendations to support decision-making under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Ethical values, stakeholder engagement and safety culture are emphasized as contributing to radiation protection decisions and practice in addition to the knowledge of human biological effects of ionizing radiation.  Ethical values support decision-making in complex situations.  Stakeholders are key in making decisions concerning the management of their radiation exposure and the achievement of sustainable and suitable decisions.  A strong safety culture is intrinsic to effective radiation protection programs.


NCRP is a Congressionally chartered body that seeks to formulate and widely disseminate information, guidance and recommendations on radiation protection and measurements which represent the consensus of leading scientific thinking.

For additional information about NCRP, interested stakeholders may contact Laura Atwell, Director of Operations, at (301) 657-2652 (ext. 18) or at or go to