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THE ISSUE: S.C. as home for waste from weapons making

OUR VIEW: Feds have reneged on storage, at least can push ahead with haste on new-tech solutions

South Carolina’s faith in the federal government to put safety and the environment ahead of politics in the important solution to permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste was misplaced. The Yucca Mountain permanent repository for high-level waste is at best on hold and at worst is a dead issue with the Obama administration actively opposed.

Rearguing the Yucca Mountain fiasco is not our point here, however. The more important aspect of the nuclear waste that is in South Carolina, and specifically at the Savannah River Site as an offshoot of the weapons-making process over decades, is what realistically can be done to ensure that it poses no major threat to the people and environment of the Palmetto State.

Again, our faith in the federal government to do what is right appears to be misplaced.

The Energy Department began cleaning up at the Savannah River Site in 1996 and promised that within a quarter-century, it would turn liquid radioactive bomb waste into a solid that could not spill or dissolve.

But 17 years later, the department has slowed the work to a pace that makes completion of the cleanup by the projected date of 2023 highly unlikely. Energy officials now say the work will not be done until well into the 2040s, when the underground tanks that hold the bomb waste in the South Carolina lowlands will be 90 years old.

“I don’t know what the tanks’ design life was intended to be, but it’s not for infinity,” Catherine B. Templeton, head of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, told The New York Times, which is reporting on South Carolina threatening Washington over the cleanup.

According to Times reporter Matthew L. Wald, the slowdown has set off a fierce battle between the Energy Department and South Carolina, “where officials say they have been double-crossed in what they view as the state’s biggest environmental threat. In an unusual display of resistance from a state that was host to a major part of the Cold War effort to make nuclear weapons — and is now home to most of the resulting radioactive waste — South Carolina is threatening to impose $154 million in fines on the federal government for failing to meet its promised schedule.”

Energy Department officials counter that the slowdown is a temporary effect of budget stringency in Washington and that Congress has tied their hands.

Templeton puts the issue in terms of how South Carolina must approach things, as she says leaks have already occurred in the storage tanks that are buried in soil below the water table.

“We have to get that waste out of the tanks so it’s not Fukushima, so you don’t have the groundwater interacting with the waste and running off,” she told the Times, referring to the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, where natural flows of subterranean water pick up contamination from the reactors and flow into the sea.

If there is to be no removal of the waste to Yucca Mountain, then the federal government owes this state and the nation making a priority of other solutions. Instead of cutting back on personnel and placing the pace of the cleanup, the process should be given the top priority is deserves a national security issue.

As the Times report pointed out, SRS has the world’s largest factory for stabilizing the liquid bomb waste, done by mixing it with molten glass and pouring it into stainless steel canisters, 10 feet high by two feet across. The stabilized waste should then last for millenniums.

The department has also perfected a technique for separating nearly all of the troublesome radioactive materials from salts in the underground tanks to reduce the volume that must be mixed with the molten glass. The rest of the radioactive material is mixed with cement that will bind it up for centuries. Last year the factory began the business of making the canisters and produced 325 of them — a respectable fraction of the 7,824 department officials say will be needed.

“Over the years, production at the factory has become smoother as machines run more hours of the year and parts that were expected to last for only four or five years have been used successfully for 10. Such longevity is an important factor at a place where the radiation fields are so intense that all the work has to be done by remote control,” according to Wald’s report.

But here’s the kicker: Because of the budget constraints, the factory intends to produce only another 125 canisters for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

That is simply not acceptable, and our South Carolina congressional delegation, – from the most spend-thrift of the Republicans in the House to Congressman James Clyburn in the Democratic power structure, to two GOP U.S. senators, one with considerable experience and influence with both sides of the aisle – should make that loud and clear, both inside their Washington world and through support of state government’s stand against the feds.

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