Reduced federal funding has further pushed back the timeline to clean, process and close Savannah River Site’s aging, high-level nuclear waste storage tanks.
Under a revised liquid waste management plan released in May, the Cold War-era tanks – some which are cracked, rusty or have leaked – would not be completely removed from service until 2032, about a decade past closure milestones in a federal facilities agreement and four years later than the previous amendment to the plan.
The site has 49 radioactive-waste tanks, six of which are no longer in use. Many of the tanks have been in use since the 1950s and 1960s when the site helped make nuclear weapons.
In addition to funding cuts, limited storage capacity for the processed waste will also slow the tank closures. The revised plan limits production of canisters that encapsulate waste in glass at the Defense Waste Processing Facility until an extra canister storage facility opens in December 2018.
The complex process to dispose of waste also hinges on the completion of the Salt Waste Processing Facility, which has been pushed to 2018, nine years past its original operation start date.
About 37 million gallons of liquid waste are stored in 43 underground storage tanks, according to the management plan. Since 1996, more than 3,700 canisters have been prepared for long-term storage and disposal.
In recent years, U.S. Department of Energy warnings that tank closures wouldn’t meet deadlines prompted the state of South Carolina to threaten steep fines.
Antinuclear activist and environmentalist Tom Clements, also the director of watchdog group SRS Watch, said the most recent revisions to tank cleanup could signal even more problems in the future.
“The plan is a patchwork in order to reduce risk and keep (high-level waste) disposition moving forward but it is full of red flags that the path to the urgent closure of all the aging (high-level waste) tanks will not be smooth, which is not comforting to the public in South Carolina and Georgia,” Clements said.