Barnwell plant's closing end of an era

SNELLING -- A page will turn Tuesday in Barnwell County, opening what could be a new chapter in South Carolina's decades-long relationship with nuclear waste.

With the start of the state's July 1 fiscal year, the nuclear waste disposal facility in Barnwell County no longer will accept waste from across the country, as it has for nearly four decades.

The Barnwell facility was the only one of its kind. Its closure leaves many states scrambling to determine how they will dispose of their low-level radioactive waste. It also leaves Barnwell scrambling to make its financial ends meet, while some residents hope -- against hope -- that high energy prices could revive nuclear energy and the waste facility here.

The terms of a deal struck in 2000 -- and vigorously fought by political leaders in Barnwell ever since -- will restrict use of the facility to South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut after Tuesday.

Environmentalists hail the agreement, saying it strikes a blow against the state's reputation as the nation's nuclear dumping ground. But political leaders in the county, happy to have the jobs and revenue generated by the facility, think it's a cruel blow, delivered to a county that takes pride in its ability to safely handle nuclear waste.

"The image that's been put out there by the media ... y'all are trying to convince people that Barnwell County glows in the dark," said Barnwell County Councilman Keith Sloan, a backer of the facility. "The waste being accepted out there is relatively innocuous. It can be handled. It can be handled safely."

Winding down

Jim Latham did not hide his exasperation with yet another request to tour and photograph the nuclear waste disposal facility in Barnwell County.

"More pictures?" asked Latham, vice president of operations at the plant, owned by Utah-based Energy Solutions. "You all have plenty of pictures."

But Latham carved out time to give another tour of the facility and patiently point out what happens there.

He spoke with pride about the work being done to dispose of the nation's low-level nuclear waste.

The facility is not intimidating. No one walks around in Hazmat suits. Mounds of grass-covered acreage betray nothing of what lies below.

Already, the facility is slowing down. It will slow down a great deal more, starting Tuesday.

The amount of waste being disposed of at the facility has been reduced in recent years in accordance with the 2000 agreement.

In 2006, some 40,000 cubic feet of waste was disposed of at the facility, Latham said. This year, about 33,000 cubic feet will be disposed of here. Next year, the figure is expected to drop to around 13,000 cubic feet and then reach 9,000 in the years after that.

Taking in lower volume will mean fewer jobs, Latham said.

More than 50 people work at the plant, and the jobs pay well -- an average of $49,357 a year, according to figures provided by facility operators last year. That's good money in a county where the median family income was $35,866 in 1999.

39 years of waste

The growth of Barnwell County's nuclear waste disposal business:

1969: Facility is licensed to receive and store low-level nuclear waste.

1976: Lease amended to expand site to 235 acres.

1980: New federal law authorized states to form regional agreements or compacts to develop waste disposal sites.

1982: South Carolina joins Southeast Compact.

1985: Federal law is amended to allow states with disposal facilities to exclude waste from some places.

1995: South Carolina withdraws from the Southeast Compact.

2000: South Carolina joins the Atlantic Compact with New Jersey and Connecticut; agreement is reached to ban waste from other states after June 30, 2008.