Savannah River Site

Report: SRS radiation could skyrocket if door opened to commercial waste

sfretwell@thestate.comFebruary 27, 2013 

Savannah River Site

US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Radiation levels could rise dramatically at the Savannah River Site if the federal weapons complex becomes a disposal ground for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, a new report says.

The study, written by a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Energy, outlines the potential hazards of making SRS an interim storage site for nuclear waste generated at the country’s commercial atomic power plants. The material once was destined for burial inside a Nevada mountain, but that site has been abandoned.

Report author Bob Alvarez said radiation in waste that could come to SRS would dwarf the amount of radiation now contained in the site’s top environmental hazard: more than 40 aging tanks of deadly high-level waste created during Cold War weapons production.

The SRS tanks have about 280 million curies of radioactivity, the largest concentration at the 310-square-mile federal site, DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said.

Waste that could go to SRS would contain more than 1 billion curies, according to the report, which used calculations of government and nuclear industry data. But that’s waste from only 17 closed reactors the government says are most in need of a storage site. The U.S. has 104 reactors that continue to produce high-level atomic waste.

“This would be one of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States in one place” if SRS received waste from the 17 closed sites, Alvarez said Wednesday.

The report also said some 2,500 shipments of high-level waste initially could travel across the nation’s highways for storage at SRS if sent by truck. If sent by rail car, 280 to 500 shipments would be bound for SRS, the study said. Waste would come from nuclear sites as far away as Oregon, Alvarez said.

Located near Aiken, the Savannah River Site is a federal nuclear weapons complex that produced material for atomic bombs during the Cold War. The site’s supporters today are seeking new missions that create jobs, including storing atomic waste at the complex and then possibly recycling the material.

SRS booster Clint Wolfe, who heads Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said the Alvarez report should be taken with a grain of salt because the former DOE official has a history of opposing nuclear projects. He said SRS is perfectly suited as a nuclear storage site and he downplayed concerns about transporting the material.

“This is kind of an attempt to get an emotional response from the public about all this bad stuff,” Wolfe said. “SRS has a great track record of dealing with this material.”

Alvarez was brought to South Carolina this week by the Sierra Club and Don’t Waste Aiken, a green group concerned about storing commercial power plant refuse at SRS. Alvarez, who served at the DOE under President Clinton, works for the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

Alvarez’ report will be officially released in Aiken County today as discussion intensifies over how to deal with the nation’s growing amount of commercial power plant waste. The nation today has about 70,000 tons of spent fuel.

The deadly material was originally scheduled to go to Yucca Mountain, Nev., for disposal, but President Obama canceled the project in 2010 after citing environmental concerns. Last month, the Department of Energy released a three-point plan for replacing Yucca Mountain. The plan calls for establishing an interim storage site by 2021 and a larger interim storage site by 2025. A permanent disposal ground would be available by 2048, according to the DOE.

SRS boosters are intrigued at bringing nuclear plant waste to the complex because the material could be the feed stock for a reprocessing plant that could create thousands of jobs.

Reprocessing is envisioned as a way to recycle spent nuclear fuel for re-use, thus reducing the amount of atomic waste that needs disposal. But recycling has been outlawed in the U.S. since the 1970s because of its potential environmental hazards – and concerns that terrorists could acquire reprocessed plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Boosters say reprocessing technology has improved, but others disagree.

“Reprocessing is more terrifying than interim storage,” said Jesse Colin Young, who works with Don’t Waste Aiken.

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