The Savannah River Site once again is being touted as an ideal location for an interim storage area for used fuel from the nation’s nuclear power plants. But now that South Carolina finally is shedding its image as the nation’s preferred waste dump, inviting nuclear plants to send tons of radioactive fuel here would be a big step backwards.
SRS, the 60-year-old federal installation near Aiken that made tritium and plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, now cleans up millions of gallons of stored waste and recycles surplus weapons-grade plutonium. But both the U.S. Department of Energy and nuclear power plants across the nation are looking for a supposedly temporary site to store spent fuel used to produce energy.
The spent fuel includes thousands of tons of used fuel from 11 closed nuclear reactors and tens of thousands of tons more fuel from plants still operating. The spent fuel now is stored on site at the plants in water pools or encased casks.
About 8,300 tons of used fuel now are stored in 72 power plants in the Carolinas. The backlog grows by 2,200 tons a year.
The federal government was supposed to have established a national repository for nuclear waste years ago, and work at a designated site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada had been progressing. But in 2009, President Barack Obama scuttled funding for the repository, fulfilling a campaign promise he made the year before.
But the move also appeared to be motivated by a desire to give Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid a leg up in a close re-election battle in 2010. Reid won, but Obama’s order brought a halt to any real effort to designate a national nuclear waste repository.
That, of course, begs the question: what do planners mean by “interim”? It seems highly likely that any nuclear waste shipped to South Carolina would remain here indefinitely.
After all, high-level radioactive waste immobilized in glass, delivered to SRS through a Department of Energy program, was supposed to remain there only temporarily. It still hasn’t been shipped to the intended burial site in New Mexico.
SRS also is home to the effort to blend surplus weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel, so-called mixed-oxide or MOX fuel. But that effort has stalled and now faces significant cost overruns.
An SRS group boosting the proposal to ship more waste to the site views the plan as a way to create new jobs and spur economic growth. But this is more than just a local economic development issue.
For example, Charlotte and York County, with two north-south interstate highways, would be a busy corridor for waste shipments. An accident could expose residents to nuclear materials that remain radioactive for thousands of years.
Ironically, the same federal dysfunction that has prevented waste from being shipped out of SRS also could delay any decision to create a new interim waste disposal site. Congress would first have to allocate money for the site and then change a federal law that requires the government to license a permanent repository before any interim site could open.
That could take years. Nonetheless, we think South Carolina should strongly oppose this effort from the start.
Storage of nuclear waste should be a federal responsibility with a central storage site that can be used by plants nationwide. The federal government, in fact, pledged to assume that responsibility decades ago.
We have seen how that played out. South Carolinians should be extremely wary of an effort to establish an “interim” storage site in this state.