January 23, 2006: The Department of Energy decision on nuclear waste in South Carolina announced last week, while it was wrapped in promises of protection for workers, surrounding communities and our environment, in fact establishes that the Savannah River Site is becoming a permanent nuclear dump with a radioactive burden exceeding the adjacent Barnwell dump. Controversy about nuclear dumping in the South has centered Barnwell, the so-called “low-level” radioactive waste dump that takes waste from commercial nuclear power reactors nationwide.
Nuclear dumps are measured not only in geographic size, but also intensity of the radiation in the waste that is dumped. Barnwell, operated by Chem-Nuclear Systems is a 235-acre mess of unlined trenches where radioactive waste that is labeled “low-level” by a skewed classification scheme is going to be left, forevermore. Some of the “low-level” waste is so highly radioactive it must be handled remotely. As of 2003, a state estimate put the radiological burden that was in the Barnwell dump (at that time) at 3 million curies. Since Barnwell has continued to receive waste in the interim, this is now only a ballpark estimate.
The Department’s new policy and its first decision regarding liquid high-level waste currently in tanks at the Savannah River Site, will result in the permanent dumping of an amount radioactivity roughly twice as big as the amount of radioactivity already buried at the Barnwell dump. Since there are extensive burial grounds containing radioactive waste already at Savannah River Site, the new permanent dumping is in addition to the sacrifice zone already created. Without a doubt, this decision makes SRS one of the largest permanent nuclear waste dumps in the US today. It gives pause to know that this is simply the first of what may be an ongoing series of such decisions.
It is not yet clear from the Department’s announcement just how much of the total tank waste will become a permanent fixture again enlarging the sacrifice zone. If all of the waste impacted by the Department’s decision is permanently dumped at SRS it would be the same as 75 new “Barnwells” on the Savannah River in South Carolina.
Many people do not understand the relatively arcane language of the DOE press release announcing this new decision. Action For A Clean Environment, Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Carolina Peace Resource Service are certain that more people would be outraged at this sudden and extreme leap in the radioactivity permanently consigned to the Savannah River Site basin. Adele Cushner of ACES declared, “This same waste has leaked from the storage site now it will just leak from the disposal site. The Ogalalla aquifer is at risk!” Cushner added “The DOE is stealing our future, and my grandchildren’s future.”
Mary Kelly of Carolina Peace Resource Center noted, “Once radioactivity is released to our environment it is impossible to reverse this action. Since the radioactive elements move through our environment in a manner identical to non-radioactive forms of the same element, the activity of life results in concentration of radioactivity in our food.” Kelly noted that “Adding to the burden of waste already dumped in South Carolina is not acceptable.”
“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission did an environmental study of the Savannah River Site for the planned new MOX fuel factory. The NRC found that an accident at SRS has a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority people. Dumping at SRS also has a disproportionate impact on these groups.” Olson says her group is “Reaching beyond the environmental community to those concerned about social justice. Dumping nuclear waste at SRS is just plain wrong.”
The Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be meeting on Wednesday January 25 from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm at the North Augusta Community Center at 101 Brookside Drive