Rob Pavey blogs green issues and the outdoors life

SRS Nuke Waste: new technology to resolve an old problem

Savannah River Remediation
The first of 49 "saltstone disposal units" at Savannah River Site will begin accepting waste in 2012.

Where does nuclear waste go when nobody wants it anymore?

That's the perennial dilemma facing the folks at Savannah River Site who are spending decades - and billions of your dollars - to dispose of radioactive material generated by a half century of Cold War nuclear weapons production.

One of the newest options involves mammoth structures known as "saltstone disposal units," or SDUs. Each rectangular module holds two round containers with a joint capacity of about 5 million gallons.

The first such SDU was completed just this year, and will start accepting waste in November 2012. It covers 2.5 acres and cost $38.4 million.

It is only the first. The long-range plans call for 39 more, all within SRS.

The material of concern is the site's liquid waste - now stored in 49 underground storage tanks, 12 of which are leaking.

The high-level waste in the aging tanks includes thick liquids, sludge with a consistency similar to peanut butter and a caustic material that turns to salt.

The low-level salt material is blended with cement and slag, then mixed to form a liquid grout that is pumped into the SDU, where it hardens to a permanent state.

The salt waste material accounts for much of the volume in the decaying Cold War waste tanks, but the peanut-butter-like sludge is the most radioactive and much more dangerous. That high-level material heads in a different direction, to the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS, where it is "vitrified" in glass and sealed inside steel canisters.

About 3,000 canisters processed during the past decade remain in storage at SRS. Some of the material was earmarked for permanent burial in Nevada's Yucca Mountain repository - a project that has since been scrapped by the Energy Department.

Now the waste has nowhere to go, and a permanent solution - other than leaving it in South Carolina - might be a long way off.


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Riverman1 07/14/11 - 06:27 am
Well, ain't that just dandy.

Well, ain't that just dandy. We will have this stuff in large tanks susceptible to many things while Yucca Mt. stays empty even though we created thousands of jobs and spent billions in the construction of the storage areas.

Keeping this stuff in these large tanks has never been studied for safety. On the other hand billions was spent determining the safety of the Yucca Mt storage. Who is to say dangerous gases won't build in these tanks that results in an explosion that would truly be heard around the world? Many other things could happen to such large exposed tanks. This is living on the edge.

Rob Pavey
Rob Pavey 07/14/11 - 08:59 am
riverman, a good point on

riverman, a good point on yucca mountain, although - had it been completed and opened - only the really bad stuff (canisters of high-level waste vitrified in glass) would have gone there, and even then, there s debate as to whether YM would have capacity for all the defense waste in addition to commercial spent fuel. The SDUs discussed above contain lower-level wastes that were created here - and most likely will remain here for eternity, but now in a much more stable form.

Riverman1 07/14/11 - 09:30 am
Rob, I hope you're right, but

Rob, I hope you're right, but it's a makeshift solution out of necessity. No serious studies were done on using these tanks in this manner They are vulnerable to lots of mishaps, plus we simply don't know what might happen internally with the waste stored that way. Are they sure these things won't leak?

Leaving the radioactive waste here goes against promises made to the people of the CSRA. I mean if the Nevada people didn't want it buried in a mountain in the desert, are we supposed to feel safe with it above ground by a river?

Riverman1 07/15/11 - 04:41 am
I don't want this to pass

I don't want this to pass without us all realizing what's going on. The crisis in Japan with their reactors after the tsunami has to be a warning to all.

Let me agree with many that nuclear power is a beneficial resource that I'm completely in favor of expanding. The nuclear waste at SRS resulted from years of weapons production which, no doubt, saved this country and the world from totalitarianism. I'm not an eco extremist by any means.

However, the proper disposal of wastes has been studied in depth literally with hundreds of millons of dollars and thousands of scientists. Yucca Mt. was created because there is a real danger of keeping nuclear wastes.

Burying it under a mountain in the desert in a sparesly populated area with all types of security and maintenance procedures was determined to be necessary. In addition if things went bad in this country and the economy wouldn't allow upkeep of the place, it could easily be sealed forever.

To believe we can build above ground tanks with a limited life expectancy, that require upkeep rattles my teeth. There are so many things that can happen. Leaking of the tanks into the groundwater leading to the river, breaches in security, natural disasters in that precarious physical location, plane crashes accidental or intentional and economic calamity that leaves the tanks unattended. All these are very real possibilities. Good luck to all of us.

Radwaste 07/22/11 - 10:02 am
"Keeping this stuff in these

"Keeping this stuff in these large tanks has never been studied for safety."

This is FALSE, and you should be ashamed of yourself for assuming this. You can get the information at any Citizen's Advisory Board meeting. Be advised that it is not an easy read.

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