Feds Want to Speed Cleanup of Nuclear Waste in South Carolina. Critics See Danger.

The move could cut costs and mark a broader change that influences nuclear sites across the country. But some nuclear watchers have warned it could also make Americans less safe.
by | June 7, 2019 AT 8:27 AM
The Savannah River Site in South Carolina
The Savannah River Site in South Carolina (TNS/The State.Sammy Fretwell)

By Colin Demarest

The U.S. Department of Energy is studying whether radioactive waste at the Savannah River Site is safe enough to treat and ship out of South Carolina, a move that could speed the site's cleanup.

The government on Wednesday said it's reinterpreting what counts as "high-level" radioactive waste -- material considered too dangerous to store anywhere but deep underground.

The move could cut costs and mark a broader change that influences nuclear sites across the country. But some nuclear watchers have warned it could also make Americans less safe.

For decades, high-level waste has been classified based on how it was produced, not what it was made of. The Energy Department will now chiefly consider a waste's radioactivity.

Paul Dabbar, the DOE's under secretary for science, described the new strategy as a "science-based approach" that focuses on "what's in it," not where the waste came from.

The new ruling will lead to a review of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater at SRS, government documents show.

Once it's treated, or even prior, the waste could be shipped to disposal facilities in Texas or Utah.

Under federal law, high-level waste could only go to a permanent repository like Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which faces an uncertain future. The department's new interpretation could ease the nuclear-waste logjam.

Five environmental groups, including South-Carolina-based Savannah River Site Watch, on Wednesday issued a joint statement decrying the reinterpretation, saying the waste needs to be handled as it was before so it won't endanger public health.

Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Trump Administration is trying to undo long-established protections with its new perspective.

"No matter what they call it, this waste needs a permanent, well-protected disposal option to guard it for generations to come," he said. "Pretending this waste is not dangerous is irresponsible and outrageous."

High-level radioactive waste has long been defined as materials resulting from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Basically, it represents the legacy of building America's nuclear arsenal.

That waste is currently stored -- some would say trapped -- in South Carolina, Idaho and Washington State.

Politicians and environmentalists alike have long been frustrated with the cost and pace of the cleanup work. At the Hanford Site in Washington State, anticipated cleanup costs now exceed $320 billion despite remediation efforts that have been underway for years.

The wastewater at SRS was generated during work at the site's Defense Waste Processing Facility, which transforms nuclear waste into glass logs.

Getting the wastewater away from SRS would be in-step with the government's overarching goal there: remediation. Millions of gallons of nuclear waste are kept at the site in aging underground storage tanks, a situation that state officials monitor closely.

Dabbar said the Energy Department was "very excited" to reduce environmental risks in the Palmetto State. Tank cleanup at SRS will proceed as planned, he noted.

The Energy Department's reinterpretation comes on the heels of a recent announcement of a new contract for SRS that focuses on the management of nuclear materials and the millions of gallons of radioactive waste. But Dabbar said the timing of the two moves is more or less coincidental.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has expressed support for the new rules for classifying waste. Six national labs under the DOE's purview, including the Savannah River National Laboratory, also backed the change, according to a March 25 letter obtained by the Aiken Standard.

"The national laboratories are supportive of a revised interpretation for high-level radioactive waste and willing to provide any resources to ensure successful implementation of the final policy," reads the letter, which includes the signature of SRNL Director Vahid Majidi.

The letter later states the new interpretation would provide an "immediate" health and safety boon to workers, the surrounding communities and the environment.

Dabbar said the letter from the labs influenced the DOE's decision.

(c)2019 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.)