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Donald Trump’s Plan To Reclassify Radioactive Waste Alarms Environmentalists

At the request of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, the agency extended the public comment period on the proposal to Jan. 9.

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Radioactive Waste
- In this July 11, 2016 file photo, a sign warns of radioactive material stored underground on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. VOA

The Trump administration wants to reclassify some radioactive waste left from the production of nuclear weapons to lower its threat level and make disposal cheaper and easier.

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.

Reclassifying the material to low-level could save the agency billions of dollars and decades of work by essentially leaving the material in the ground, critics say.

The proposal joins a long list of Trump administration efforts to loosen environmental protections. Just last week, the Environmental Protection Agency acted to ease rules on the sagging U.S. coal industry.

Tom Carpenter of Hanford Challenge, a nuclear watchdog group, said it wants a thorough cleanup of the Washington state nuclear site, which is half the size of Rhode Island. That includes building a national repository somewhere else to bury the waste once it has been stabilized.

Radioactive Waste
In this March 6, 2013 file photo, workers are shown at the ‘C’ Tank Farm at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, near Richland, Washington. VOA

The cleanup of the site is really at stake,” Carpenter said about the proposed change.

He noted that Hanford is located in an environmentally sensitive site adjacent to the Columbia River and susceptible to earthquakes, volcanoes and flooding.

Hanford was established by the Manhattan Project in World War Two to make plutonium, a key ingredient in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The plant went on to produce most of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

As a result, the site also contains the nation’s largest collection of nuclear waste. The most dangerous is stored in 177 aging underground tanks, some of which have leaked. The tanks hold some 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical wastes waiting to be treated for permanent disposal.

Cleanup efforts at Hanford have been underway since the late 1980s and cost about $2 billion a year.

Current law defines high-level radioactive waste as resulting from processing irradiated nuclear fuel that is highly radioactive. The Energy Department wants to reclassify some of the waste that meets highly technical conditions.

Radioactive Waste
In this July 9, 2014 file photo, a sign warns of high levels of radiation near a valve at the “C” tank farm during a media tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington. VOA

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

Environmental groups and the state of Washington, which has a legal commitment with the Energy Department to oversee the Hanford cleanup, said the proposal is a concern.

“They see it as a way to get cleanup done faster and less expensively,” said Alex Smith of the Washington state Department of Ecology.

Carpenter said there “is not much point in doing much else if they don’t clean up the high-level waste.”

Also Read: North Korea Open To Nuclear Site Inspection: Report

At the request of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, the agency extended the public comment period on the proposal to Jan. 9. The agency can make the change without the approval of Congress.

“No one disputes the difficulty of retrieving and treating high-level waste from Hanford’s aging storage tanks,” Wyden wrote to the DOE. “However, lowering the bar for level of protection of future generations and the environment by changing the definition of what has always been considered high-level waste requiring permanent disposal is a significant change.”(VOA)

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Advance Of Summit, NATO Pacify Trump

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal

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Flags of NATO member countries
Flags of NATO member countries are seen at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. VOA

As Britain prepares for the NATO leaders’ meeting outside London December 3-4, the alliance said Thursday it had agreed to redistribute costs and cut the U.S. contribution to its central budget.

NATO’s central budget is relatively small at around $2.5 billion a year, mostly covering headquarters operations and staff, and different than its defense budget. U.S. President Donald Trump often complains of inequitable burden-sharing, with only nine of the 29 member countries meeting the 2%  of gross domestic product target for the alliance’s defense spending.

Regarding the central budget, “The U.S. will pay less, Germany will pay more, so now the U.S. and Germany will pay the same,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Paris Thursday.

The United States currently pays about 22% of NATO’s central budget. Beginning 2021, both U.S. and Germany will contribute about 16%.

NATO also plans to consider a Franco-German proposal to create a working group of “respected figures” to discuss reform in the alliance and address concerns about its future.

The announcement to reduce the American contribution is seen as a move to placate Trump, who has considered withdrawing from the alliance but has since taken credit for its promised reforms.

“In 2016, only four allies spent 2%  of GDP on defense,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday, adding that there are now nine countries, including the U.S.,  meeting the 2% target, with 18 expected to do so by 2024.

“This is tremendous progress, and I think it is due to the president’s diplomatic work,” he said.

 U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO
A convoy of U.S. vehicle is seen after withdrawing from northern Syria, on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq. VOA

Internal strife

Leaders of the 29 member states will attempt a show of unity during the summit but the alliance is facing questioning about its relevance and unity, particularly after the October withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, a move Trump made without consulting NATO.

“It’s exactly in the wake of that decision that you had [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron say what he said about the alliance being ‘brain-dead’ and referencing the lack of American leadership in the sense of leading in a community and not just going out on your own,” said Gary Schmitt, a NATO analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.

U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Syria prompted Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish YPG militia in northern Syria. The move spurred Macron to vent his frustration over what French diplomats say is NATO’s lack of coordination at a political level, and triggered fear among allies that the assault will undermine the battle against Islamic State militants.

Meanwhile, a simmering war between Russia and Ukraine has become the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, with the American president allegedly having withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate running against Trump. Kyiv needs the aid to counter Moscow’s aggression.

The two conflicts in Europe’s eastern and southern flank further complicate Washington’s already-strained relations with other NATO members. Meanwhile, despite American efforts to reassure European leaders of Washington’s continuing commitment, anxiety about U.S. neglect of NATO under Trump persists, said Hans Kundnani, Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine. VOA

Kundnani noted a series of American officials who have come to reassure Europeans not to take Trump’s tweets too seriously and focus on what is happening on the ground, particularly the military reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank. Still, Kundnani said that in the last year Europeans have started to realize it’s “not really good enough” and they’re now facing the “reality of the of the crisis in NATO.”

“Some of them are hoping that Trump will be out of office in in a year’s time but the real fear is that Trump wins a second term,” said Kundnani, adding that some Europeans are hoping that “U.S. gradual withdrawal from Europe” might “snap back to the status quo ante if Trump is not re-elected.”

Diverging European responses

“The upcoming celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary will be marked by important divisions within the alliance — not just across the Atlantic, but also within Europe,” said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

In Paris, the view is “strategic autonomy,” said Donfried, with many in France concluding that Washington’s security guarantee can no longer be relied on. Warsaw is promoting “strategic embrace”  developing close bilateral relationship with Trump to guarantee its own security, while Berlin is advocating “strategic patience.”

Germany in the middle is a little bit divided between the “Atlanticists” and the “post-Atlanticists,”   Kundani said, adding that “Europeans are very much arguing” about these approaches.

Donfried said that against this backdrop, NATO allies are approaching the London summit with a sense of foreboding, knowing that they carry the responsibility to articulate alliance’s common purpose and ongoing relevance.

“If they don’t, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will be raising a glass in Moscow to the fraught state of the alliance at 70,” she said.

Another summit goal for most European leaders, is to simply avoid a Trump flare-up, like those that have happened in past meetings.

NATO meetings
President Donald Trump meets with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations General Assembly, New York. VOA

Many have discovered this can be achieved through flattery. “They can talk about all the things that they’ve done and very smartly suggest that President Trump has generated the kind of pressure to make those things happen,” Schmitt said.

“They can actually praise President Trump, even though this is very hard for them to do because of the personality clashes.”

Many will be watching Trump’s encounters with Macron, including their bilateral meeting, as well as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson has pleaded for Trump to stay out of the upcoming British election during his London trip.

The senior administration official said that Trump is “aware of this” and “absolutely cognizant of not wading into other countries’ elections.”

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Other potential clashes are simmering too. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Emmanuel Macron’s NATO “brain-death” warning reflects a “sick and shallow” understanding, telling the French president “you should check whether you are brain dead.”

The French foreign ministry has summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest the statement. (VOA)