The coronavirus pandemic is making the problem even worse.
The Trump administration has been under fire for not doing enough to clean up nuclear waste. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures, the efforts are effectively on hold.
At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, an underground nuclear waste facility operated by the Department of Energy, new shipments of hazardous material from nuclear sites across the country have reportedly been stopped to protect workers from the coronavirus.
According to an Associated Press report, the small number of essential employees working at nuclear facilities around the country, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, are focusing on safety, security, and information technology. Cleanup efforts have been frozen.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) told the wire service this week that worker safety is a priority, but more effort is needed to speed nuclear cleanup.
"We are fighting to make sure workers and their families are taken care of during this crisis and that workers have the resources they need to meet cleanup goals when they are able to safely return to their jobs," she said.
Cantwell, Washington Sen. Ron Wyden (D), and New Mexico Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall raised concerns in early March that the Trump administration was not planning to spend enough money to do needed nuclear waste cleanup. Funding for those efforts, they warned, was being cut in favor of spending more money on modernization of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
"Tell us which of the problems you’re going to kick down the road even further now that you have a budget that proposes cutting such a substantial amount of money," Wyden told Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette at a Senate hearing. Brouillette responded that cleanup was still a priority.
But last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission proposed a rule change to allow some nuclear waste to be deposited in municipal landfills.
Former director of the University of California, Santa Cruz's Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy Dan Hirsch told The Hill, "What they're trying to do is prop up a failing industry so that the cost of decommissioning these [nuclear] reactors is reduced so you don't have to send it to a place that is expensive because it's designed to safely handle it. I find it just astonishing that they would do that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic."
The administration also announced last year that it would reclassify nuclear waste as less radioactive so as to circumvent disposal rules. An Energy Department official claimed at the time that this would allow for faster cleanup at a lower cost.
The landfill decision is the latest in a line of moves by the Trump administration that flout environmental concerns. It also comes as the administration is under fire for using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to decimate environmental protections.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that it was temporarily suspending enforcement of civil environmental regulations, allowing the fossil fuel industry to ignore monitoring and compliance obligations. The agency additionally rolled back automobile pollution standards enacted during the Obama administration.
Donald Trump has repeatedly promised America "crystal clear clean water and clean air" but has significantly changed environmental regulations, often going beyond the loosening of rules that industry asks for.
Last year, Trump told reporters at a NATO summit in London that climate change was "very important" to him, saying he thought about it "all the time." However, months later, his administration curbed a series of methane regulations that even some energy companies opposed.
And despite claiming he wants "crystal clear" water, Trump has signed a series of orders allowing construction on highly controversial oil pipelines to move forward.
"Nobody in the world can do what you folks do," he told a group of pipeline engineers in April last year before signing an order making it difficult for states to intervene and stop such projects. "And we're going to make it easier for you."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation