A Senate committee has approved changes in the law that will allow the Energy Department to avoid removing thousands of gallons of highly radioactive sludge (search) from tanks at a federal nuclear site in South Carolina.

Energy Department (search) officials expressed hope the breakthrough might also help them reach agreement with Washington and Idaho officials on the treatment of millions of gallons of liquid radioactive waste kept at DOE facilities in those states.

The Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to put the change in a defense bill, despite objections from Washington's two senators, who are not on the panel. The provision was sought by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said the change — limited to waste at the Savannah River (search) site near Aiken, S.C., was needed to implement an agreement reached between the Energy Department and the state.

The provision was approved late Thursday during a closed committee meeting where the defense legislation was being crafted. The decision was made public Friday.

The Energy Department has been stymied in an attempt to reclassify some of the 90 million gallons of radioactive waste kept in tanks at federal facilities in Washington state, Idaho and South Carolina so it would not have to ship it to a special high-level waste repository.

The department claims the residual sludge, the byproduct of Cold War bomb-making, is too expensive to extract. Instead, the government says, it can be diluted by covering it with grout so it can be left in place as less radioactive "low level" waste.

After a federal judge in Idaho last year ruled that reclassifying such sludge as low-level waste violated the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (search), the department began pushing members of Congress to change the law.

Graham's provision limits the change in the law to waste at the Savannah River site where 34 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste is being kept in tanks.

He said the agreement with DOE would allow the sludge lining the bottom and sides of the tank to remain in place and be covered by grout, saving $16 billion in cleanup costs and shortening the cleanup time by 23 years.

The provision, Graham said, still "allows South Carolina and DOE to define high level waste in a very reasonable manner. ... There's nothing going to be left behind ... that will not be secured through environmental remediating to protect South Carolina."

But state officials in Idaho and Washington oppose any changes in the law unless they are assured the states will have a final say in how the waste will be handled.

The changes put into the defense bill "would minimize the role of (state) regulators in overseeing decisions regarding this waste's disposal," argued Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington in a letter to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the Armed Services Committee chairman. They said it would give the Energy Department the go-ahead "to define what constitutes cleanup."

Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow earlier this week said the department would not force legislative language onto states and that negotiations on a way to resolve the impasse over how the sludge should be treated were continuing with Idaho and Washington officials.

"We wouldn't make a decision without involving the states," said McSlarrow.

There are 34 million gallons of waste in underground tanks at the Savannah River site near Aiken, S.C.; 53 million gallons in tanks at the Hanford site near Richland, Wash.; and 900,000 gallons in tanks at the INEEL facility in Idaho. The waste has been described as a "witches brew of radioactivity" left over from years of reprocessing to make plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Geoffrey Fettus, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council (search), which brought the suit that led to the Idaho court decision, said the cleanup changes sought by the Energy Department and pushed by Graham "would create nuclear waste cesspools" and a "legacy of radioactive pollution" at the defense sites.