Aging waste tank cracks at SRS

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 9, 2014 

Savannah River Site

US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Savannah River Site officials recently discovered a new crack in a tank that contains some of the most dangerous nuclear waste in South Carolina, a state now embroiled in a tank cleanup dispute with the federal government.

The cracked bin is not leaking atomic material, but its condition underscores the need to speed the cleanup of dozens of high-level waste tanks at SRS, state officials and environmentalists said Thursday afternoon. The aging Cold War-era tanks hold about 36 million gallons of the deadly waste.

“Those tanks are wearing out and we have got to get the waste out of them,’’ said Karen Patterson, chairwoman of the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council.

Patterson’s comments are the latest in a war of words by state officials about the federal government’s commitment to cleaning up SRS, a 310-square-mile atomic weapons site near Aiken with a more than 50-year legacy of environmental contamination.

The biggest concerns are the waste tanks, which state regulator Shelly Wilson said present the “single largest environmental threat in the state of South Carolina.’’

Recent federal budget cuts, as well as the federal government shutdown last fall, have left less money and people available for the tank cleanup. A major factory intended to help with the cleanup is behind schedule for completion. Meanwhile, more than 400 cleanup workers were laid off last September because of money shortages.

SRS officials said the amount of waste being cleaned out of tanks is expected to be less this year than in past years. Because of what the state Department of Health and Environmental Control says are unacceptable delays, the agency has threatened to fine the federal government more than $150 million dollars if the cleanup doesn’t get moving.

A Department of Energy official told the council Thursday the agency is doing its best. Some news reports suggest the cleanup could be delayed from the 2020s to the 2040s.

Terry Spears, the department’s assistant manager for waste disposition, also said the crack isn’t the first on the tank, but it is high enough on the side of the huge canister that nuclear waste won’t seep out. At one point in the 1990s, federal inspection reports showed that more than one-fourth of the waste tanks have cracked, rusted or leaked. Waste in the tanks could quickly kill anyone exposed directly to the material.

Shelly Wilson, DHEC’s federal facilities liaison, said the cleanup could be years behind schedule without attention. “The sad thing is that right now we know that those (cleanup) milestones are in jeopardy,’’ beginning possibly as soon as next year, she said.

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