Radioactive Waste Piling Up at Savannah River Site

WASHINGTON, DC, March 16, 2004 (ENS) - The federal government is not doing enough to prevent radioactive waste stored at the nuclear weapons plant near Aiken, South Carolina from contaminating the Savannah River, according a report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). The study says the U.S. Energy Department's program to secure the waste is failing and criticizes the federal agency for plans to curtail environmental monitoring of the site.

"The Department of Energy is creating the first ever high-level waste dumps in South Carolina," said the study's lead author and IEER president Arjun Makhijani.


The Savannah River is a site burdened with the radioactive legacy of the Cold War. (Photos courtesy Energy Department )
The report says the Energy Department does not have a reliable inventory of how much waste and contamination is at the site and its long term plan to safeguard the waste is flawed.

The 310 square mile Savannah River Site is located close to several major cities, including Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; as well as Columbia, Greenville, and Charleston, South Carolina. The site is owned by the Department of Energy's Savannah River Operations Office and managed by Westinghouse Savannah River Company.

The facility was built in the early 1950s to produce plutonium and tritium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. More than a third of U.S. weapons plutonium and almost all of its tritium was produced there.

The federal government has stored the high level radioactive waste produced at the plant on site in 51 massive underground tanks with the aim of retrieving it and moving it elsewhere for safe storage.

Although the liquid wastes can be drawn out and removed, the Energy Department's method for removing the most radioactive sludge out of the tanks has proven unsafe and alternatives are being explored.

Savannah River Site

Worker at the Savannah River Site operates the Remotely Controlled Defense Waste Processing Facility which treats the highly radioactive material by mixing it with a sand-like borosilicate glass. The mixture is then heated until molten and poured into stainless steel canisters to cool and harden.
The report criticizes the department for its plan to dilute the waste in all 51 tanks with grout and leave it on site permanently.

Two tanks have already been diluted with grout despite evidence that the residual radioactivity had concentrations far above the maximum limits allowed by federal regulations for shallow land disposal of waste.

"This is making a residual waste problem that could be remedied in the long term - with development of technology - into one that will be extremely difficult or impossible to remediate," Makhijani said.

The Energy Department "is assuming that it can maintain site control essentially forever," Makhijani said.

For the federal government to leave the grouted tanks on site, the waste would have to be reclassified as less hazardous. But last year a federal court in Idaho rejected the Energy Department's attempt do this through a federal rulemaking process.

The Bush administration is appealing the Idaho decision and asking Congress change federal law in order to the waste to be reclassified and left on site at nuclear weapons plants.

The report says past waste dumping and mismanagement at the Savannah River Site, along with a failure to implement a sound cleanup plan, have created extensive water pollution beneath the site as well as serious risks for water resources in the region. Groundwater contamination with radium, tritium, strontium, chromium, mercury, lead and cesium has been well documented.

Savannah River Site

The Reactor Materials (M) Area on the Savannah River Site
Current levels of contamination are well within present safe drinking water limits, Makhijani said, but "recent research indicates that tritium standards may not be adequate to protect pregnant women and developing fetuses from adverse health effects."

The Savannah River Site management says that the Savannah River, which ultimately receives the wastewater, is continually monitored to assure that the amounts of tritium, facility effluents and other substances are within federal limits. The facility operates monitoring stations on the river at points upstream from the site and as far downstream as 100 miles from the site, and has cooperative programs to share information with the appropriate jurisdictions on a regular basis.

An enhanced tritium monitoring program is designed to provide prompt notification to downriver consumers of significant changes in tritium concentrations, management says.

In recent years, the maximum dose to an individual who consumes Savannah River water, from either the Beaufort-Jasper Water Treatment Plant or the Port Wentworth water treatment plant near Savannah, has been about 0.1 millirem per year, or less than three percent of the four millirem annual limit established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says the site management.

"The federal government needs to recover the buried wastes dumped decades ago that are still polluting the Savannah River, and to tighten tritium standards to protect those most at risk," Makhijani said.

But ultimately, the Savannah River Site says, "Because tritium oxide is actually a radioactive form of water, it cannot be physically or chemically removed like solvents."

Even so, the IEER report calls on the federal government to expand its monitoring of the water in the Savannah River, which is a critical source of drinking water and a popular water body for recreational fishers.

Georgia state officials highlighted the report's criticism of the Energy Department for its plan to terminate a three year, $1.89 million radiation monitoring study along the Georgia side of the Savannah River.

"We are going to work in a bipartisan way in the state of Georgia to hold the federal government's feet to the fire," said Georgia State Representative Orrock, a Democrat and Majority Whip of the Georgia House of Representatives. "The Department of Energy simply must not be allowed to put our most precious natural resource - water - at risk in this appalling way." tanks

The Savannah plant has containment tanks similar to these at a the Energy Department's Hanford Nuclear Site in Washington state. At least 70 of the Hanford tanks have leaked some one million gallons of highly radioactive waste into the soil.
The federal department called the Georgia program "redundant" because the city of Savannah and the state of South Carolina have monitoring programs.

Makhijani says the Energy Department's nuclear waste cleanup policy at Savannah River - and across the country - is drifting into "a direction of lax cleanup, waste mismanagement, and disregard of the long term health of water resources for short term expediency."

"These are all hallmarks of the Cold War era, when the Energy Department and its predecessor agencies relegated the health of the public and the environment into second place, if that, did grave harm," Makhijani said. "It was an era that the federal government promised had ended with the Cold War. But it seems to be back."

The report does not comment on the federal government's new and proposed nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel production programs at the Savannah River site.

A tritium separation facility is being built there and there are proposals to build a plant to make mixed plutonium uranium (MOX) fuel for reactors and another plant to manufacture plutonium bomb cores.