MY TURN: Continued nuclear waste storage not in S.C.’s interest

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Savannah River Site’s E Area, which is used for storage and disposal of waste materials.  Source:  Energy.gov.

Savannah River Site’s E Area, which is used for storage and disposal of waste materials. Source: Energy.gov.

By Suzanne Rhodes | Nuclear wastes at Savannah River Site (SRS) have been leaking for decades. The League of Women Voters of South Carolina has been observing the slow progress of managing the legacy weapons wastes for over 30 years. It now appears likely that not only wastes from SRS, but also international wastes, will stay at the Aiken County site for the foreseeable future.

Two reports released late in 2014 indicate legal and political opposition will obstruct current U.S. nuclear waste storage plans. Neither Yucca Mountain nor any other site for geologic high-level waste disposal — not even “interim” storage of commercial spent fuel — is likely to develop, according to the Government Accountability Office. It blames the public’s lack of confidence in U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). GAO is an arm of Congress, which should have been the origin and supporter of nuclear waste management policy. Instead, Congress has consistently undermined progress at Yucca Mountain through inattention, program changes and unreliable funding.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that DOE lacks the land rights and water rights necessary to license the site, according to its 5-volume Safety Evaluation Report on Yucca Mountain. A series of Nevada governors and attorneys general — NOT just U.S. Sen. Harry Reid — has opposed Yucca Mountain. Nevada seems to have succeeded in blocking the repository. [See Volume 4 of the report.]

If/when a geologic repository becomes available, the nuclear power industry will have political influence and community support to move commercial spent fuel off to a repository. Weapons wastes were included in the 1980s legislation only because three highly-regarded governors and their delegations were concerned about weapons wastes abandoned in their states. Decades ago, they united to initiate the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which is now basically obsolete. Unfortunately, we lack such leadership today.

S.C. Sen. Tom Young of Aiken established last summer that international wastes have been received at SRS, have not been treated and there are no plans for treatment. The League’s strongest ally has been Tom Clements of SRS Watch, who has been concerned about nuclear waste issues since the Allied General Nuclear Services plant was proposed ‘next door’ to SRS back in the 1970s. One of his many successes has been uncovering mysterious, long-planned international shipments of wastes to SRS from very capable countries that potentially could become regional leaders in international nuclear waste management.

Fortunately, all of the puzzling ‘transuranic’ wastes at SRS have been successfully packaged for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. There was a tragic explosion at WIPP in February 2014 and it appears unlikely to reopen. The League has repeatedly praised the SRS technical staff for tackling the old legacy packages, which were poorly documented and might have been ignored at another weapons facility. The remaining wastes will remain at SRS, packaged for shipping, unless the state of New Mexico allows reopening of WIPP.

Fortunately, SRS technical staff has done an outstanding job of making wastes as safe as practicable, thus far. However, staff engineering design goals have been for temporary storage at SRS in forms ultimately suitable for the Yucca Mountain repository site or WIPP. Up to 50 more years of congressional appropriations and successful cleanup will be required to continue to treat the wastes now at SRS. Delays have been the result of lack of appropriations from Congress. Recent budget cuts have slowed SRS cleanup for more than a decade.

In addition to legal issues compromised if proposed German3 and other international spent fuel is sent to SRS, international waste will require the use of aging facilities, long-term oversight, management, and financial responsibilities. Waste imports continue to be contrary to South Carolina interests.

Suzanne Rhodes of Columbia is coordinator or nuclear waste policy with the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.

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