The United States and German governments have been in talks for the past three years over a proposal to send shiploads of highly radioactive nuclear waste from a German reactor to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, according to government documents revealed Tuesday.
The U.S. Department of Energy offered to evaluate accepting waste from the German prototype reactor, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Energy letter obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Research agencies of the German government have signed a “statement of interest” to support the research and development, SRS spokesman Jim Giusti said Tuesday.
“We haven’t agreed to do anything yet,” Giusti told The Greenville News. “We are still evaluating that. If that decision is made, Germany will fully fund the work.”
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However, a representative of an environmental group that opposes further acceptance of waste at SRS — a Cold War-era facility near Aiken that once helped produce nuclear weapons and now is spending millions to clean up waste after decades of acting as the nation’s dumping ground — said the plan would be unprecedented.
“The proposal to import highly radioactive spent fuel from Germany to SRS is simply nuclear dumping dressed up as nuclear non-proliferation,” said Tom Clements, director of the SRS Watch environmental group.
“Germany’s challenging dilemma with what to do with its nuclear waste must not become a waste management problem for the Savannah River Site.”
The waste would come in the form of canisters containing “graphite pebble fuel elements” from a shuttered German prototype that operated from 1967 to 1988.
The proposal comes as Canada prepares next year to ship weapons-grade liquid uranium made in the United States from Canadian laboratories that used the substance to make an isotope that helps diagnose and treat certain diseases.
The Savannah River Site also is the subject of a heated funding battle between President Barack Obama and a bipartisan collection of South Carolina congressional leaders over a $7 billion project to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial fuel.
The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it would continue work on the mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) project until the end of the fiscal year in September but has said the project will cost too much and should be set aside as other options to honor non-proliferation treaties with Russia can be explored.
Gov. Nikki Haley, a supporter of reprocessing programs at SRS, said through a spokesman Tuesday that the prospect of accepting German waste “is not about whether utilizing the facilities at SRS is a good idea — the more we use SRS the more jobs we create.”
The federal government, spokesman Doug Mayer said, has failed to live up to its longstanding promises to remove waste from SRS once it is processed.
In May 2011 — two months following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and after mounting pressure from a vocal anti-nuclear movement inside Germany — the German government announced that it would close down its commercial nuclear program by 2022.
The following December, German officials met with the Department of Energy to discuss Germany paying to dispose of waste from a shuttered experimental reactor, according to a letter obtained by Clements under the Freedom of Information Act.
The letter, dated Feb. 27, 2012, is from Georg Schutte, the state secretary of Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and addressed to the undersecretary of nuclear security at the U.S. Department of Energy, Thomas D’Agostino.
The letter discusses an experimental reactor that was a “graphite-moderated pebble bed reactor” in the process of being dismantled.
The graphite-based fuel for the reactor originated in the U.S. and initially totaled about 900 kilograms — nearly a ton — of highly enriched uranium, according to the letter.
The German secretary expressed in the letter hope that a decision could be reached by the time a global nuclear non-proliferation summit convened in Seoul, South Korea, in March 2012.
Before any decision is made, the Department of Energy will conduct “appropriate analysis and consult with the public” in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, Giusti said in a message to SRS stakeholders on Monday.
Details of the proposal were limited as the evaluation begins, Giusti said, but “it’s a non-proliferation mission for us, and that’s what we’re evaluating.”