After years of study into the best way to decommission Savannah River Site's obsolete Cold War nuclear reactors, the Energy Department has settled on a plan to fill them with concrete and leave them in place forever.
According to an Environmental Bulletin published Friday, the department's Early Action Proposed Plan -- which is out for public comment through Aug. 3 -- involves "in-situ" (in-place) decommissioning as the preferred option for C, K, L and R reactors.
Such a plan, which is similar to one in place for P-Reactor, involves removing portions of the reactor buildings and maintaining the structural integrity of above-ground portions for at least 200 years, the bulletin said.
"In making these recommendations, we look at the full range of alternatives, from the no-action alternative all the way through in-situ to a complete removal alternative," said Ray Hannah, the decommissioning project manager for C, K, L and R reactors.
The benefits of such a plan include stabilization and isolation of remaining contamination; prevention of the migration of radioactive or hazardous contaminants to groundwater; prevention of exposure to industrial workers; and prevention of radioactive exposure to animal intruders.
Helen Belencan, the Recovery Act project manager at SRS, said current plans call for decommissioning P and R reactors by the end of 2011, with work at K, L and C reactors to be completed much later.
The Early Action Proposed Plan out for review follows a record of decisions already made for in-situ decommissioning for P-Reactor, she said.
"Leading up to the decision on P-Reactor, we held a series of workshops around the state to gather input, and it was largely positive," she said. "The in-situ decommissioning is safe for the environment, causes less risk for the workers and saves the DOE and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars."
Environmental groups, however, think it might be more prudent to demolish and remove the old heavy water reactors, which once produced material for the nation's nuclear arsenal.
"Another option is to dismantle the reactors and dispose of the components in a special on-site facility," said Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
"Building a special disposal facility should be considered at SRS, but as the (in-situ) method is cheaper and more acceptable under a weaker regulatory climate, it has been the basis of discussion for some time," he said.
As part of the site's $1.6 billion allocation from the federal stimulus program, deactivation work already under way on P-Reactor is expected to accelerate, and the R-Reactor project will be moved up for a faster completion.
SAVANNAH RIVER SITE REACTORS
P-REACTOR: began operating in 1954 and was shut down in 1988; decommissioning under way
C-REACTOR: began operating in 1955 and was shut down in 1986; now used for cask car refurbishments
K-REACTOR: began operating in 1954 and was placed in standby in 1988; restarted in 1992 for power tests before being shut down in 1993; now used for plutonium disposition
L-REACTOR: operated from 1954 to 1968 and from 1985 to 1988; now used for nuclear materials storage
R-REACTOR: operated from 1953 to 1964 and was the first to go online; awaiting decommissioning
Source: U.S. Department of Energy