SRS might keep nuclear waste

Nuclear waste could remain at Savannah River Site much longer than anticipated under Energy Secretary Stephen Chu's proposal to scrap plans for a permanent repository in Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

Dr. Chu told members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week that new strategies could be developed for nuclear waste, and that a 27-year, $13.5 billion effort to establish the Yucca Mountain project should be abandoned.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has supported Yucca Mountain as a means to get high-level nuclear waste out of his state.

"This represents a broken promise to South Carolina and a lot of other states that have been storing a lot of nuclear waste," said Joel Sawyer, Mr. Sanford's communications director.

Yucca Mountain was being designed to accommodate radioactive material stored at 121 temporary sites in 39 states, including SRS, where high-level wastes are encased in glass and stored in steel cylinders that were to eventually be shipped elsewhere.

Jim Giusti, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS, said it is too early to determine what will happen with wastes stored at the site if Yucca Mountain is abandoned.

"We'll be waiting for guidance from Washington on how to proceed," he said. "But I can say that we're going to ensure there is no safety issue with the material we're handling here, whether it be spent fuel in a water basin or a stainless steel canister with glass waste inside."

Mr. Sawyer said it is disappointing that the media didn't fully explore the waste disposal issue in more detail before the election.

"This is a question that should have been asked during the presidential campaign: what would an Obama administration mean for Georgia and South Carolina in terms of keeping promises on nuclear waste?"

Stephanie Mueller, an Energy Department spokeswoman in Washington, said Dr. Chu intends to pull together leading experts in the nuclear waste field later this year to come up with a new plan.

Tom Clements, the southeast nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, noted that Yucca Mountain was being designed to hold 70,000 tons of waste, of which only 10 percent was to be from the Department of Energy, with the remainder originating at commercial nuclear reactors.

"So I'm not sure this development changes anything as far as (SRS) waste because it was always at the bottom of the pecking order," he said.

Dr. Chu's declaration that Yucca Mountain was no longer an option was mirrored in President Obama's proposed budget, which eliminated funds for the project.

Yucca Mountain is 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119 or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

DEVELOPMENTS:

- In June, the U.S. Energy Department delivered a formal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the nation's first national repository for high-level radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

- If the site is built, radioactive material stored at 121 temporary sites in 39 states would have a permanent resting place.

- SRS has two glass waste storage buildings, where radioactive waste encased in glass is stored in steel cylinders that are supposed to be shipped to Yucca Mountain.

- This week, President Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, announced intentions to scrap the Yucca Mountain repository.

IMPACT:

If the Yucca Mountain project is not pursued, the waste would likely remain in South Carolina indefinitely or until alternatives are explored.

BACKGROUND

Yucca Mountain and Savannah River Site

- Last June, the U.S. Energy Department delivered a formal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build the nation's first national repository for high-level radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain.

- The application is substantial -- more than 8,600 pages -- and represents a $13.5 billion investment spanning two decades.

- If the site is built, radioactive material stored at 121 temporary sites in 39 states -- including Savannah River Site -- would have a permanent resting place.

- SRS has two glass waste storage buildings, where radioactive waste encased in glass is stored in steel cylinders that are supposed be shipped to Yucca Mountain.

- This week, President Obama's new energy secretary, Steven Chu, announced intentions to scrap the Yucca Mountain repository in favor of convening a panel of experts to explore other options.

- If the Yucca Mountain project is not pursued, the waste would likely remain in South Carolina indefinitely or until alternatives are explored.