Cleanup of Radioactive Bomb Waste in South Carolina: The Endless Project

Monday, December 02, 2013
(photo: U.S. Department of Energy)

It has been 17 years since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began cleaning up the Cold War-era nuclear weapons plant, Savannah River Site, in South Carolina, and at the current pace, it may be another 30 years before the work is completed.


That fact does not sit well with state officials who are now threatening to levy an enormous fine on DOE for not keeping to its original deadline of fixing the mess by 2023.


A key aspect of the project, which started in 1996, is to turn liquid radioactive bomb waste into a solid that can be safely stored for millennia while its radiation decays.


It’s important to make this conversion sooner rather than later because the toxic waste now sits in huge underground tanks (that hold anywhere from 750,000 to 1.3 million gallons each) that have been in use since the 1950s.


If the federal government takes until the 2040s to finish the remediation, it means the tanks will need to hold up for 90 years.


“I don’t know what the tanks’ design life was intended to be, but it’s not for infinity,” Catherine B. Templeton, South Carolina’s top environmental official, told The New York Times.


“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 added, referring to the radioactive water flowing from the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan and into the ocean.


To prod the DOE into moving faster, the state is threatening to impose $154 million in fines for failing to finish the project in nine years.


Energy officials say the slowdown couldn’t be helped, what with the budget cuts from sequestration and other decisions by Congress that reduced the amount of money flowing to the Savannah cleanup operation.


“There’s only so much to go around,” Terrel J. Spears, DOE’s assistant manager for waste disposition at the site, told the Times. “We can’t increase the budgets. Now we have to balance the budgets.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

South Carolina Threatens Washington Over Cleanup (by Matthew Wald, New York Times)

Nuclear Weapons Site Reportedly Fails Security Tests (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

The Government Project that is $6 Billion Over Budget and 10 Years Late (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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