Politics & Government

Feds offer to speed cleanup of SC’s deadly nuclear waste. But plan isn’t that simple

The Savannah River Site near Aiken is home to deadly high-level nuclear waste
The Savannah River Site near Aiken is home to deadly high-level nuclear waste File photograph

The U.S. Department of Energy is proposing to ship what has long been considered some of the world’s most deadly nuclear waste from South Carolina to burial grounds in the western United States under a plan to reclassify some of the atomic refuse as less dangerous.

According to plans, the energy department would classify some of the Savannah River Site’s high-level waste as low-level waste, a type of atomic refuse that is considered less toxic. That, in turn, would allow the material to be shipped to low-level nuclear waste disposal sites in the deserts of Utah and Texas.

“We want to look at taking the waste stream in South Carolina and reclassifying it and moving it out of state,’’ said Paul Dabbar, the energy department’s undersecretary for science.

As it stands, the country does not have a high-level waste burial ground, meaning SRS must keep the deadly waste at the Aiken area weapons complex indefinitely.

The DOE’s plan for reclassifying and shipping waste from SRS is part of a larger proposal to change the definition of nuclear waste at weapons complexes in other parts of the country. The agency says it has historically considered much of the waste that resulted from Cold War weapons production to be high-level. Now, it will consider how radioactive the material is, the DOE said.

In addition to the Savannah River Site, nuclear weapons sites in Washington and Idaho that also have high level waste could benefit from the department’s plan to change the definition of nuclear waste, the agency said.

The SRS proposal and a companion plan for nuclear sites across the country, released Wednesday, drew immediate criticism from environmental groups, which said the plans are potentially dangerous.

But the Department of Energy says reclassifying some of the high level waste would occur only after a thorough analysis and environmental studies.

Federal records show the agency will look at whether 10,000 gallons of Savannah River Site wastewater should still should be classified as high level waste or downgraded to another category. For now, the DOE said it is only considering the 10,000 gallons for disposal at a licensed faciliity outside South Carolina, records show. The wastewater comes from the Defense Waste Processing Facility, an industrial plant that converts high-level waste into glass in an effort to neutralize its danger.

Reclassifying waste would speed cleanup at the Savannah River Site, the agency said. The 310-square-mile weapons complex has tons of atomic refuse left over from Cold War weapons production. Much of that waste is held in about four-dozen aging tanks, some of which have cracked. A handful of tanks have been emptied, but most still contain waste.

Nuclear waste disposal is a hot button issue in South Carolina, where leaders have expressed frustration with the Department of Energy’s failure to clean up high level atomic refuse through the years.

Gov. Henry McMaster found out about the DOE plan Monday during a phone call with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the governor’s office said. McMaster likes what he’s seen so far, spokesman Brian Symmes said.

“If the department’s study and analysis shows that this waste can be safely reclassified and transferred elsewhere, then the governor is in full support of any plan that would reduce risk in South Carolina,’’ Symmes said in an email.

Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office also said he hopes any rules change would result in the removal of radioactive waste from South Carolina.

Critics said redefining high level waste and shipping it to low level waste dumps in the West would only shift the problem from South Carolina to other communities.

Don Hancock, who follows nuclear issues for the Southwest Research and Information Center, said the plan would not go over well with some residents of Texas and Utah. Low-level waste disposal sites were not designed to take highly radioactive material.

Geoff Fettus, who tracks nuclear waste issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said reclassifying waste might also allow officials at SRS to avoid cleaning up some material altogether.

Fettus said that if some of the waste at SRS is no longer considered high level, the DOE could leave the material there and walk away. If that happens, it would not be the first time at SRS. In 2002, the energy department offered plans to reclassify waste so some residual material could remain in the tanks.

“That is the big thing,’’ Fettus said. “I think this is just as much about what stays in the tanks, as to what comes out.’’

Fettus said the environmental group has serious reservations about the plan being advanced by President Donald Trump.

“The Trump administration is moving to fundamentally alter more than 50 years of national consensus on how the most toxic, radioactive and dangerous waste in the world is managed and ultimately disposed of,’’ Fettus told The State newspaper. “No matter what they call it, this waste needs a permanent, well-protected disposal option to guard it for generations to come.’’

Tom Clements, who heads Savannah River Site Watch, also said the proposal is unwise and unsafe.

“DOE’s questionable rewriting of the regulations is simply a cost-cutting measure designed to get thousands of HLW (high level waste) containers dumped off site,’’ he said in an email.

Any waste that is reclassified would not be sent to South Carolina’s Barnwell County low-level nuclear waste site near SRS, but to commercial facilities near the Texas-New Mexico border and in Utah, energy officials said. The low-level Utah waste site is owned by the same company that runs the aging Barnwell County low-level waste dump, which has leaked.

“It allows us to dispose of this into facilities ... in Texas or in Utah,’’ Dabbar said.

“We are very excited about actually increasing the pace of reducing risk in South Carolina,’’ he said.

In a news release Wednesday, the DOE said the agency has for decades managed reprocessing waste streams as high level waste, regardless of how radioactive the material is. But it now plans to look at the waste more carefully to determine if some of it is less radioactive. Less dangerous material could be disposed of, according to plans.

“Recognizing this failure, this administration is proposing a responsible, results-driven solution that will finally open potential avenues for the safe treatment and removal of the lower level waste currently housed in three states,” Dabbar said in the news release. “DOE is going to analyze each waste stream and manage it in accordance with Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, with the goal of getting the lower-level waste out of these states without sacrificing public safety.”

The DOE’s proposal to study reclassifying SRS waste and shipping it off-site to low-level waste dumps was released Wednesday but is part of a plan under discussion since last fall. That plan, which drew thousands of public comments, said the DOE would redefine its interpretation of high-level waste. On Wednesday, the agency department said how it would redefine the waste.