Don’t reopen Barnwell nuclear landfill to nation

Some state lawmakers are under pressure from the operators of the nuclear waste disposal site in Barnwell County to reopen the site to waste from around the nation. To do so would risk returning the state to the status of a national dumping ground, a stigma the state held for decades until the Legislature finally took action in 2000 to reduce the flow of waste into South Carolina.

Several state lawmakers have said they recently have been approached by representatives of Energy Solutions, the landfill operator that runs the Barnwell waste site near the Savannah River. The company has requested legislation that would open the 235-acre landfill to states that currently are not permitted to use the site.

Under the law passed in 2000 and fully implemented in 2008, the dump was closed to all but three states – Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina – which formed what is known as the Atlantic Compact. Spokesmen for Energy Solutions say that a reduction in waste shipments has resulted in lower revenues, and more money is needed to operate the landfill.

The discussion also includes a proposal to import waste with higher amounts of radioactivity to South Carolina in exchange for shipping out waste with lower amounts of radioactivity. This could result in a significant increase in the radioactivity of waste received at the Barnwell site, ultimately returning it to its status as the nation’s primary disposal site for high-end Class C waste.

We fail to see how South Carolina would benefit from such a swap.

Under the Atlantic Compact agreement, the cost of operating the landfill is split among the power reactors in the three states. Annual operating costs are determined by the state Public Service Commission, and operators are paid that amount plus a margin.

Thus, revenues always are available to cover operating costs, and the volume of waste should not affect that. Essentially, the only beneficiaries of sending more Class C waste to South Carolina would be waste facilities in other states and regional utilities outside the Atlantic Compact, which would no longer have the responsibility of tending to the higher-level waste.

And with a higher influx of waste, South Carolina will lose vital landfill space it will need for its own waste.

Who would suffer from this deal? South Carolina, of course. We know that from nearly 40 years of experience before the dump was closed to most of the nation.

Even now, the landfill is leaking radioactive tritium into groundwater that drains into a tributary of the Savannah River. That river is a source of drinking water for communities in Beaufort and Jasper counties, including Hilton Head Island. Savannah, Ga., also gets drinking water from the river.

To reopen the landfill to the rest of the nation, while inviting states to send South Carolina its most toxic low-level nuclear waste, would be asking for more pollution and higher health risks for residents of the state. And the benefits to the state would be negligible, if any.

South Carolinians were fortunate that the hard work and perseverance of those who wanted to change the state’s image as the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste finally resulted in a deal that severely limits who can send waste to the landfill. Turning back the clock would be insane.