AIKEN - Efforts to rid Savannah River Site of nuclear waste and other radioactive materials would get a boost under the proposed 2008 federal budget President Bush unveiled Monday.
Spending to empty tanks with millions of gallons of the site's most radioactive waste - the top safety concern at SRS - would grow to $665 million, a 25 percent increase over the $533 million budgeted in 2006.
The site continues to operate based on 2006 levels because Congress has yet to approve its fiscal 2007 budget, which was supposed to have taken effect in October. And the president's proposal for 2008 is only a blueprint for Congress, which votes on final spending decisions.
At a news conference Monday, President Bush's energy secretary, Samuel Bodman, listed the treatment of dangerous nuclear waste, securing permits for the Yucca Mountain waste burial ground and strengthening security at national laboratories as top priorities.
Treating waste left over from the production of Cold War-era weapons, Mr. Bodman said, "is a very difficult business."
"It's has never been done before," he said.
It's also going to take longer at SRS than originally projected, according the proposed 2008 budget.
The site's 49 tanks, which contain roughly 36 million gallons of waste, won't be officially closed until 2031, six years later than originally projected.
"It's a projection at this time," DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said.
It's possible, she added, that the time line could change as new technologies are created.
Several older tanks that the DOE has agreed to empty earlier would still be closed on time by 2022, according to the proposed budget.
Shelly Sherritt, a regulator with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said her agency had yet to evaluate the delayed closure date.
"I'm more concerned with start dates," she said, referring to a factory needed to empty the tanks that isn't even built yet.
Funding in the 2008 budget also could increase for the MOX factory at SRS, which is supposed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into mixed-oxide fuel for commercial power plants. The project got $218 million in 2006 and would get $334 million in 2008.
That's if it gets built at all. Some in Congress have suggested killing the project outright and starting over.
"DOE is just going to press on as if there is no issue," said Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who says the plutonium remains too dangerous even after it's turned into fuel.
He supports immobilizing the potential bomb-making material by mixing it with glass, which is what SRS plans to do with about 13 tons of plutonium that isn't clean enough to be turned into reactor fuel.
Design work on that factory would get $15 million in 2008 under the president's proposed budget.
"It would do the job with less waste and less risk," Dr. Lyman said.
Cleanup missions at the site fall under its environmental management contract, by far the largest at SRS. Overall, compared to 2006, when the site got $1.27 billion, that portion of the site's budget would drop by 5 percent under the president's proposal, to $1.2 billion.
That's partly because the cleanup list is getting smaller.
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The biggest impact in the proposed 2008 federal budget at Savannah River Site might not actually come until later. President Bush requested $405 million for research into his Global Nuclear Energy Program, a plan to advance nuclear power by recycling the waste it creates.
Some say SRS is the best place to build test facilities, which could mean billions of dollars and thousands of jobs down the line.
"We really do believe we've got a shot at getting some GNEP work down the road," said Mal McKibben, an SRS booster and the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.