Operators at the Savannah River Site improperly diverted nearly $750,000 away from an effort to clean up atomic waste and toward a campaign to develop mini-nuclear reactors at the weapons complex near Aiken, an activist group said this week.
When the federal Office of Management and Budget learned of the spending about three years ago, it ordered the site’s main contractor to quit shifting cleanup money to the reactor program, according to Savannah River Site Watch. The anti-nuclear group based its findings on documents obtained through a federal open records request.
Savannah River Site officials and site supporters acknowledged that the OMB halted the use of cleanup money for the mini-nuke program, but said SRS thought the shift was proper until receiving the budget office directive.
The diversion of cleanup money to the mini-nuclear reactor initiative, formally known as the small modular reactor program, occurred some time in 2012, records show.
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While $750,000 is a fraction of the more than $1 billion SRS cleanup budget, SRS Watch director Tom Clements said diverting any money is a bad idea because the site has so much pollution. He called on the U.S. Department of Energy to maintain cleanup money to attack the 310-square-mile site’s extensive pollution problems, rather than use the money for other purposes.
SRS is an energy department complex that produced nuclear weapons components during the Cold War. Pollution created during the effort is being cleaned up today, and boosters are seeking new missions for the complex.
“The cleanup budget already is under stress, so every dollar has to be spent wisely,’’ Clements said. “This spending on small modular reactors harmed the cleanup program. I just hope it doesn’t (foreshadow) the future diversion of cleanup funds.’’
In a statement this week, energy department spokesman Jim Giusti said the use of cleanup funds for the mini-nuclear reactor program didn’t hamper efforts to cleanse the site.
SRS officials did not respond to questions from The State newspaper on whether the $750,000 had been restored to the cleanup budget. But Giusti said the site supports many initiatives, including development of mini-nuclear reactors.
Attempts to gain comment from the budget office were unsuccessful Wednesday.
The amount of cleanup needed at SRS is extensive. The most dangerous waste is held in a series of huge tanks that have cracked and leaked. SRS is in the process of closing the tanks and turning highly radioactive waste inside the canisters into glass, which is supposed to make it less dangerous.
Plans to develop mini-nuclear power plants surfaced several years ago as a way to provide less expensive power for the United States, as well as for parts of the world without reliable sources of electricity. Mini-nukes can be as small as double-wide trailers and cheaper to produce than conventional nuclear plants.
But efforts by SRS boosters to establish a mini-nuclear reactor program at the weapons complex sputtered in 2013, when the federal government chose another site for potential development of the small modular reactors.
Clint Wolfe, who heads the pro-nuclear Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said the OMB directive ultimately hurt efforts to develop small modular reactors at the Savannah River Site. The Savannah River National Laboratory was targeted to help with the reactor work through the cleanup funds.
“No question it had an effect,’’ Wolfe said, adding that he thinks the Office of Management and Budget “overstepped its bounds’’ in stopping the use of cleanup money for the small modular reactor program.
He also said the spending was justified, because small modular reactors could use spent nuclear fuel at SRS to help run the plants. That would have added to cleanup work by getting rid of the used fuel, he said.
Community leaders have sought new programs, such as the mini-nuke effort, since atomic weapons production shut down more than 25 years ago. About 11,000 people work at the site now, according to a fourth quarter 2014 SRS employment report.