Nearly four years after its expected completion date, a processing plant that is vital to cleaning up deadly nuclear waste near Aiken is only 65 percent finished and hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.
The Savannah River Site’s salt-waste processing plant originally was scheduled for completion in 2009, but problems with its design and the types of materials needed in the facility have delayed work and sent costs skyrocketing.
Early U.S. Department of Energy estimates placed the project’s cost at $440 million. The cost later was revised to $900 million, agency records show. Today, it has risen to $1.3 billion, according to a November status report by the Energy Department.
That’s an important pocketbook issue for taxpayers.
But delays in the project also are a concern to the public for environmental and safety reasons. Without the salt-waste processing facility, efforts to clean up some of the world’s most dangerous atomic waste could be delayed.
The target date for the high-level-waste cleanup is 2027, an Energy Department spokesman said. “That date is going to be in jeopardy based on the delay in the salt-waste processing facility and other fiscal issues,’’ Energy Department spokesman Jim Giusti said.
‘We ... have to address the cost’
SRS is a 310-square-mile federal nuclear weapons complex near Aiken that employs about 12,000 people. Materials produced at the site are key ingredients in nuclear bombs.
But the Cold War weapons buildup left a legacy of dangerous atomic waste — and site managers are now working to clean up the toxic mess.
The most dangerous waste sits in 47 aging tanks that are prone to leaks. SRS slowly is cleaning out and neutralizing the material in the tanks to reduce its environmental and health threat. The work, however, can’t be finished until the salt-waste processing plant is operating.
SRS managers say the salt-waste plant likely won’t open until at least 2018 — nine years after its initial target date for completion — although that date is tentative and could be pushed back. The completion date depends on more money from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We now have to address the cost increase, as well as the schedule delays, and get a viable baseline together for what it is going to take to complete this facility,’’ said Zack Smith, the Energy Department’s deputy manager at the Savannah River Site.
During a Dec. 13 meeting with the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council, Smith said he expects to meet with high-ranking Energy Department officials in Washington during the next three to four months to discuss money for the salt-processing plant.
If the Energy Department approves more money to complete the project, the agency still would need approval from Congress in the 2014 budget, Giusti said.
Delays threaten larger cleanup?
Interest groups that normally clash over SRS issues agree the 142,000-square-foot salt-waste facility needs to be finished as soon as possible.
“If the idea is to clean the stuff up, the salt-waste processing facility will certainly accelerate that when it is in business,’’ said Clint Wolfe, director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, an SRS support group.
Wolfe and Tom Clements, an official with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, said the Energy Department has made the tank cleanup one of the agency’s highest priorities on the Savannah River Site.
Energy Department officials “need to get their eyes on the ball and focus on the tanks and get the money to carry out this program,’’ Clements said.
State and federal officials said in 2006 the project’s original estimated cost was $440 million, a figure Giusti acknowledged recently. The Energy Department’s “Project Dashboard’’ report from November shows the project budget was $900 million, but the new cost is $1.339 billion.
Clements, a longtime SRS critic, said troubles with the salt-waste processing plant could be disastrous.
“That one project’s mismanagement and cost overruns are going to have a severe effect on the entire high-level waste (cleanup) program in a very negative way,’’ he said.
Litany of woes
SRS officials first encountered problems with the salt-waste plant in the mid-2000s. At the time, it was discovered the plant was not designed to safely withstand earthquakes that could hit South Carolina. So it was reconfigured.
In recent years, SRS managers learned some of the giant tanks needed in the salt plant did not meet nuclear safety standards. After initial problems with one contractor, the site contracted with a second company to produce the tanks, further delaying the start-up date and sending costs soaring.
The salt-processing plant is one of two major facilities needed to clean toxic nuclear waste from the 47 tanks, which contain some 37 million gallons of atomic sludge, water and crust, commonly referred to as salt.
Another plant, the defense-waste processing facility, has been processing sludge for nearly 17 years. But the sludge makes up a small percentage of the overall volume of waste in the tanks.
The majority of the tank waste would go through the salt plant for processing.
The cleanup process involves piping high-level atomic sludge to the already completed defense waste processing plant and turning the refuse into glass. The salt-waste plant is designed to process a different kind of waste than the sludge.
When it opens, the salt plant will process a watery, crusty solution that sits atop the sludge in the tanks. The salt process will separate less radioactive waste from more highly radioactive waste. The less radioactive waste will be encased in concrete and buried at SRS. The more toxic high-level waste will be turned into glass, just as the high-level waste sludge has been.
Turning the waste into glass makes it less dangerous and easier to dispose of in the future.
Until the salt-waste processing plant is finished, the Energy Department is using a temporary processing plant to separate some of the material. But it can handle no more than 1 million gallons a year. The salt-waste processing plant is designed to handle 6 million gallons.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which issued a permit for the salt plant, is aware of the problems — and agency officials are concerned.
A statement from director Catherine Templeton said DHEC still expects the Energy Department to open the plant by October 2015, as stated in the permit. Fines of up to $105,000 a day could be levied for each day the plant is not on schedule, DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said.
“Startup of the salt-waste processing facility, a major treatment facility, is crucial for (the) Department of Energy to treat highly radioactive waste and close aging storage tanks,’’ Templeton’s statement said.
SRS advocate Wolfe and the Energy Department’s Giusti emphasized building the salt plant is not an easy task.
Wolfe said the facility is a one-of-a kind plant with extensive safety requirements. Because the nuclear industry has not grown substantially for the past 30 years, it was hard for SRS to find all the atomic materials needed for the salt plant, Wolfe said. Manufacturers are just getting up to speed as new nuclear power plants are being built, he said.
“There’s no cookie cutter here,’’ Wolfe said. “You’re taking a unique, one-of-a-kind facility, trying to build it to a standard most people never try to live up to. And you do it in a way where safety cannot be compromised.’’
Clements blamed the salt plant delays and costs on the Energy Department’s focus on other projects in recent years.
He said the department’s new $4.6 billion mixed-oxide fuel plant is a prime example. That factory, still under construction, will turn excess plutonium into nuclear fuel, but it also will create its own waste stream and doesn’t have a customer, he said.
“SRS management has really lost sight of the priority, which is cleaning up this high-level waste,’’ Clements said.