Editor's note: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the life cycle cost estimate of nuclear cleanup. It is between $91 billion and $109 billion. Also, the environmental management budget was about $1.3 billion for fiscal 2015.
Cleanup of Savannah River Site’s Cold War nuclear waste has been pushed back to fiscal year 2065, requiring an additional $25 billion and more than two extra decades of work, according to latest projections from the U.S. Department of Energy.
New estimates add 23 years to the environmental management program at SRS, and the life cycle cost estimate has risen to between $91 billion and $109 billion, according to DOE.
Information on the delay was presented to the SRS Citizens Advisory Board this week. Board members said announcements of delays and cost overruns have become expected as the federal government faces tightening budgets.
Marolyn Parson, the chairwoman of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board, said the schedule delay puts workers and the environment at a greater risk from potential threats of nuclear materials at the site.
“It’s disappointing. It seems every year we push the dates back farther and farther. All that does is keep the risks in place longer and longer,” Parsons said. “It’s on and on. I don’t know when it’s going to stop.”
Reduced federal funding levels for SRS have contributed to the changes, said Jim Giusti, a spokesman for DOE-SRS. The environmental management budget, which was about $1.3 billion for fiscal 2015, allows for less work to be completed each year, he said.
The life cycle estimate analyzes several cleanup programs, including spent nuclear fuel processing, solid and liquid waste disposition and soil and groundwater remediation. It considers “assumptions” that would affect clean up, such as shipments from SRS to a permanent federal repository beginning in 2055, completion of the Salt Waste Processing Facility, and schedules for emptying and closing high-level liquid waste tanks.
“We are going to do as much as we can with the money we have. That means some of those (cleanup milestones) are going to get pushed back. When we look at risks to the public and our workers, which ones can we push out farther because they are less risk than say our high-level waste tanks,” Giusti said.
SRS has 51 underground storage tanks, six of which are no longer in use, holding high-level radioactive waste. Some of the aging tanks are cracked, rusty or have leaked.
The projections can change if Congress budgets more money or the site saves money on some programs, Giusti said. He said programs have been prioritized to clean up those with the greatest risk first.
“There’s always a risk when we delay work. I don’t know it’s any more a risk today than it would be a year from now,” he said. “The things that are the most risk to the public and the environment we are going to get done first. That’s our priority. We look at liquid waste as being the No. 1 risk at the site we have to deal with.”
Tom Clements, the director of nuclear watchdog group SRS Watch, said it’s important that SRS officials and politicians pressure the DOE to fully fund site cleanup.
“With the pressure on the DOE budget only increasing, it appears that the stage could be set for some work to never be adequately finished, raising the spectre that the site could become a national sacrifice zone,” Clements said.
Whether cleanup is ever completed depends on future funding amid DOE budget constraints, Giusti said.
“It will depend on what the priorities of the nation are and in many cases, how much money do we get. None of us at Savannah River Site, meaning DOE and our contractors, want to drag this out. But we have to face the reality of the budget challenges that are facing the Department of Energy and Congress,” Giusti said.