Savannah River Site's accumulated nuclear waste continues to pose significant risks, but cleanup programs are making progress, a federal oversight committee was told Thursday.
In a daylong series of meetings in Augusta, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board heard testimony about the site's liquid waste program and the fate of spent nuclear fuel and other materials at the 310-square-mile facility in South Carolina.
The board, created by Congress to help protect worker safety at nuclear weapons facilities, has aired concerns about emergency preparedness plans, the impact of pending site layoffs and program changes -- particularly in the H-Canyon chemical separations area -- that could keep nuclear waste in South Carolina longer than expected.
One major concern involves 37 million gallons of liquid waste stored in 51 underground tanks, of which two have been closed.
Many remaining tanks are leaking and present hazards that include explosions and the spread of radioactivity, said Daniel Ogg, the board's group leader for nuclear materials processing and stabilization.
Some of those tanks are 55 years old, well past their 40-year design life, he said.
Site officials, however, said that cleanup programs have been accelerated in recent years with continued emphasis on worker safety.
"I wish to assure you that I place an emphasis on safety above all and am committed and devoted to fostering a culture of safety into everything we do," said Terrel Spears, the assistant waste disposition project manager at the site.
Significant accomplishments include the production of more than 3,100 canisters of vitrified waste at the site's Defense Waste Processing Facility, which encapsulates waste in a glasslike form suitable for permanent safe storage.
The board has also questioned the effects of the Department of Energy's plan to scale back of activities at H-Canyon, the nation's sole remaining facility at which certain types of plutonium, highly enriched uranium and aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuels can be processed for disposal.
The department plans to place the facility in "minimum inventory and staffing condition," which could include halting the flow of nuclear materials sent there for processing.
Dae Chung, the department's principal deputy assistant secretary for the environmental management, told the board that the future uses of H-Canyon will depend on the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to recommend nuclear waste disposal strategies.