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March 13, 2013

Study sees treasure for SC in nuclear trash

The promise of jobs and economic prosperity highlight a new report that suggests South Carolina would be a good spot to deposit the nation’s nuclear waste for recycling, research or other uses.

The promise of jobs and economic prosperity highlight a new report that suggests South Carolina would be a good spot to deposit the nation’s nuclear waste for recycling, research or other uses.

Commissioned by boosters of the Savannah River Site, the report says the state could land nearly 1,700 jobs and generate $12 million in taxes by taking the atomic waste and reprocessing the material in the Aiken area, which has the expertise to do the work.

Anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 metric tons of high-level nuclear refuse could flow to SRS under different scenarios presented in the study by former Department of Energy official Timothy Frazier. The United States has about 70,000 tons of high-level waste, which must be handled carefully because it is so dangerous.

The report’s findings, released Wednesday, are the latest in an escalating debate about whether South Carolina should take some of the spent nuclear fuel that once was destined for a national burial ground in Nevada. When President Obama canceled the Yucca Mountain project in 2010, it left the country without a permanent site to dispose of high-level waste generated at the nation’s 104 atomic reactors.

Since that time, the Department of Energy has recommended developing one or two interim storage sites in the next 12 years, with a permanent replacement for Yucca Mountain established by 2048. No sites have been chosen yet, but the 310-square-mile SRS is a possibility because it is searching for new missions to replace its Cold War weapons production processes.

The study, to be presented to a state nuclear advisory commission in Columbia today, recommends that Aiken-Augusta area leaders “move forward in establishing” facilities to manage waste, such as a reprocessing plant. About 20,000 tons of the nuclear waste could come from the Southeast, about 6,650 tons of which would be from South Carolina and Georgia, the report said.

Frazier’s study is part of a campaign by Savannah River Site backers to gauge state and community interest in recycling waste from commercial nuclear power plants. SRS boosters said Wednesday that bringing the toxic refuse to South Carolina would only be desirable if something could be done with it, such as reprocessing.

The key to creating jobs in the Aiken area is conducting research or reprocessing the material once the waste arrives at SRS, Frazier said. Simply storing the material without reprocessing would create few jobs, boosters said.

“Reprocessing clearly is one of those things that would be a big economic impact, a positive economic impact to the region,” Frazier said, noting that his job projections were conservative.

But the key to whether nuclear waste is shipped to SRS and reprocessed will depend on local and state backing, said Rick McLeod, who heads the Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization.

“The study makes clear that community understanding and support is vital to the success of any effort to establish needed fuel cycle facilities,” McLeod said.

Wednesday’s release of the $200,000 study follows a report last month by another former DOE official, who said radiation levels could skyrocket at SRS if the site takes the nation’s nuclear refuse.

The waste-disposal issue will hit the stage this afternoon, when SRS boosters and critics of nuclear power speak to the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council in Columbia. The state has not taken a position on whether to seek nuclear waste that would have gone to Yucca Mountain.

Arjun Makhijani, a nationally known nuclear critic who also will address the council, said Wednesday that South Carolina should steer away from storing the nation’s atomic trash at SRS and from reprocessing the material. Recycling nuclear fuel has created nasty waste streams in France, where toxic garbage from reprocessing is released into the English Channel, he said. At the same time, building a plant easily could cost $20 billion, he said.

“Nuclear reprocessing proponents are stuck in the last century,” said Makhijani, a researcher and author who heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. “It is time to move on. These are very risky technologies.”

Makhijani and other nuclear industry critics say the spent fuel could be stored in dry casks at existing power plants until the nation finds a permanent disposal site.

Reprocessing, or recycling, is a technology that was banned in the U.S. more than 30 years ago because of its potential dangers. The reprocessing work separates nuclear material in waste so that it can be used again in fuel for power plants, a point that boosters say could ultimately reduce the overall amount of nuclear waste created in making power.

McLeod said the idea of reprocessing should be at least studied as a way to provide new missions at SRS and help with the nation’s growing nuclear waste burden. He said new reprocessing technologies might be developed by the time any such facility is built in South Carolina. It could be 25 years before such a facility would be operating. Any such plant would likely need private financing to make it work, the Frazier report said.

Establishing a small reprocessing plant that would create jobs at SRS “needs to be on the table for discussion,” McLeod said. “People are just trying to paint it as an issue that doesn’t have any future, when we don’t know what the future holds.”

Susan Corbett, a state Sierra Club official in Columbia, said more jobs aren’t worth the risk. The material might not ever be reprocessed, leaving SRS as a de facto high-level waste dump, she said.

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