After years of delays, government agencies reached a deal this week that’s intended to jump-start the sputtering cleanup of highly radioactive waste at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant near Aiken.
The agreement says the U.S. Department of Energy will by 2019 begin operating a treatment plant, as well as use “additional technologies,’’ to clean out more than 40 high-level waste tanks. Those tanks, which are aging and in some cases cracking, contain deadly refuse created during the nation’s effort to produce weapons for the Cold War.
“It gets it back on track, as much as we can,’’ said Shelly Wilson, a Department of Health and Environmental Control regulator involved in negotiations with the DOE.
Because DHEC and the Energy Department reached the agreement, the state agency won’t pursue fines of up to $200 million, according to the federal agency. DHEC said the agreement helps avoid litigation between the state and federal government over the delays.
Gov. Nikki Haley’s office, as well as longtime SRS critic Tom Clements, said the agreement is encouraging, but they remained skeptical.
Past federal estimates placed the treatment plant, called the salt waste processing facility, in operation by 2009. Other estimates had plant operations starting in 2011. The most recent milestone for startup was October 2015. DOE officials last summer announced that construction was complete and they have since begun testing the plant in preparation for a startup. At the time, the DOE said it planned to begin operating the plant by late 2018.
In addition to delays, the cost of the plant has risen to more than $2 billion today. Early estimates put the cost at closer to $450 million.
“We are pleased DOE has agreed to accelerate treatment of liquid waste at SRS, but the federal government’s track record with other promises they have made isn’t a good one, so we will closely monitor DOE’s compliance with their end of the bargain,’’ Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in an email.
Clements, who heads Savannah River Site Watch, said DHEC has allowed the Department of Energy “to slip before’’ on its cleanup commitments. The agency should have held firm and fined the Energy Department, Clements said.
“We want this to work, but I think DHEC needs to stand firmer when DOE misses a milestone,’’ Clements said, noting that part of the agreement could also allow for the disposal of some high level waste in a facility not designed for the material.
According to news releases from both agencies, the Energy Department agreed to start processing the more than 36 million gallons of high-level tank waste beginning this year and continuing through 2022.
The agency also is paying an extra $200 million for work on technology that will help move the process along, news releases said Tuesday. The technology includes installing a cesium removal unit and adds a solvent at the salt waste plant.
The salt waste processing facility is one of two main factories needed to clean out the waste tanks at SRS. The other one, known as the defense waste processing facility, has been running for years. But it focuses on processing sludge waste for disposal. The salt plant would process material commonly referred to as salt waste, which is also found in the tanks. Much of the waste that has been processed at SRS is being held for future disposal in a national atomic waste burial ground, which has yet to be established.
“"DHEC's responsibility is to protect the environment and public health in South Carolina, and this agreement furthers our goal of maximized waste treatment on a timely schedule to lower the risk for the state," said DHEC Director Catherine Heigel. "We appreciate the DOE working with us to make important progress toward ensuring the long-term safety and health of South Carolinians."
The DOE also issued a statement supporting the agreement.
“"This agreement underscores our continued commitment to furthering the Department of Energy's environmental cleanup mission at Savannah River Site and reaffirms our good working relationship with South Carolina," said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. "We look forward to our ongoing collaborative work with South Carolina to identify and execute beneficial near-term and long-term environmental solutions in the state, advance new environmental science and technology at the Savannah River National Laboratory, and carry-out critical nuclear security missions."