Scrutiny intensifies over German nuke waste shipments to SC

sfretwell@thestate.comJuly 11, 2014 

Savannah River Site

US DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Germany’s plan to ship highly radioactive atomic waste to South Carolina is getting help from scientists at the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex as skepticism about the proposal grows in the Palmetto State.

During a meeting Thursday in Columbia, U.S. officials said the German government is paying SRS researchers to study how to separate materials in the waste, which contains a mixture of elements that are hard to work with.

The Germans have agreed to pay $10 million toward the research at SRS, anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements said, citing documents he has reviewed.

If the research is successful, it could make the waste material easier to process into nuclear fuel for atomic power plants. Such research also could bolster arguments to bring the waste to the Aiken complex, which Clements said would be bad for South Carolina.

Gary DeLeon, an official with the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, said that if the material is to be processed, an easier way of handling the unusual graphite-and-uranium waste is needed.

A method has been developed in the laboratory to separate highly enriched uranium from the rest of the waste that “turned out to be promising,’’ he said. According to one plan, the uranium would be blended to make nuclear fuel.

“We said we don’t have any funding to do this – so you’re going to have pay,’’ DeLeon said, referring to American discussions with the Germans. “We entered (an) agreement with the Germans to evaluate this (technical) approach the Savannah River National Lab came up with.’’

In an attempt to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists or rogue states, the U.S. has had a longstanding program of bringing back nuclear waste created by American-generated atomic material that was sent to foreign countries for use in research.

DeLeon said it’s too early to know if successful laboratory work means it could be applied to the one-million spheres of graphite and uranium waste. All told, 455 casks of nuclear waste would be shipped to SRS over a three-year period. It would come by ship through the port of Charleston.

The DOE is currently trying to determine whether to allow the German nuclear waste, which would come from several reactors in that country. It could be a year or more before a decision is made.

Clements, who heads Savannah River Site Watch, said he doesn’t like the idea of SRS scientists helping in an effort that could bring the European waste to America. Processing the waste at SRS would create a new stream of nuclear garbage that may have to be dumped in waste tanks the site is now trying to clean out, he said.

“By their developing this technique, they maybe encouraging the German nuclear waste to come into South Carolina,’’ Clements said of the SRS research.

Clements said Germany could dispose of the material safely, but is looking for a way to avoid developing its own atomic refuse site.

But in this case Clements said there’s every indication Germany’s shipments are commercial power plant waste, which he said is not allowed. If that is the case, Clements said the U.S. would open the door for a flood of foreign nuclear material.

German plans to send the waste to South Carolina have caused a stir lately in South Carolina. Environmentalists, some Aiken-area residents, and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democratic candidate for governor, have criticized the plan. Many say it’s the latest plan to make SRS a national nuclear waste dump.

Advisory council members, who provide information to Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, took no formal position Thursday on whether to oppose the German waste shipments. But they were skeptical of the proposal. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, grilled DeLeon on the federal government’s longstanding policy of taking back U.S.-generated nuclear materials. The material was supposed to be processed decades ago, but still is sitting at the Savannah River Site. Young questioned whether the same thing would happen if the German refuse came here.

“I imagine that some of the people here in this room today, and people that couldn’t be here today, have a lot of concerns about more highly enriched uranium coming to the Savannah River Site and sitting – without a disposition path,’’ he said. “What I’m hearing from ya’ll is that ‘We’ve done this in the past and the stuff has sat here for decades.’ Here we are talking about bringing in more stuff.’’

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