The U.S. Department of Energy on Thursday heard comments on the possibility of accepting spent nuclear fuel from Germany for processing at Savannah River Site and disposal at a yet to be disclosed location.
In a meeting at the North Augusta Community Center, several dozen citizens and activists were provided opportunities to discuss the draft environmental assessment issued by the Energy Department last month. The assessment evaluates the potential impact of accepting the spent fuel, which comes from two German reactors that ceased operations in the late 1980s.
The spent fuel takes the form of about a million “irradiated graphite pebble” spheres roughly the size of a cue ball that contain uranium and thorium and are currently stored in 455 casks. Attendees were able to see pictures of the casks and models of the spheres.
Maxcine Maxted, the spent nuclear fuel program manager at SRS, said accepting the material would support a national policy aimed at eliminating highly enriched uranium and converting it into a form “no longer usable for an improvised nuclear device.”
Currently, there are two alternatives for how to handle the spent fuel: one involves processing the material in the H-area and the other at the site’s L-area. Both alternatives would be completely funded by Germany.
The Energy Department could also take no action, leaving the material in Germany, but such a decision wouldn’t come until after the 45-day public comment period ends March 7.
Suzanne Rhodes, of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, said she finds it alarming that other countries are actively seeking to send material to the U.S., particularly to SRS.
“Germany, the U.K., France and Japan all have their eyes on SRS, and they’re all potential leaders in their regions for taking care of their country’s waste,” Rhodes said. “There’s no good reason for these countries to dump at SRS.”
The German fuel, however, originated in the U.S. and was given to Germany under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative, Maxted said.
Another speaker, Tom Clements, the director of the nuclear watchdog group SRS Watch, said the fuel is “not of a proliferation concern.”
Maxted confirmed that the fuel isn’t a proliferation risk but said the U.S. is more concerned with ridding the globe of excess highly enriched uranium.
SRS Citizens Advisory Board member Dawn Gillas argued that the fuel should come to the South Carolina site simply because it has the capability. Before the assessment, Germany funded research at the Savannah River National Laboratory that explored ways to process the fuel.
“We already have at SRS a wide variety of materials and each one has to be dealt with, and yes, this is another material to be dealt with, but we’ve got the expertise to do it,” Gillas said.