Blue Ribbon panel to tour SRS, look for solution

Group tasked with finding answer for waste problem

In terms of nuclear issues, the eyes of the nation will be on Augusta this week as the Obama Administration's Blue Ribbon Commission for America's Nuclear Future visits Savannah River Site and Augusta.

The group, whose co-chairman is former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, was asked to develop a new national plan for long-term disposal of spent nuclear fuel and similar wastes.

The task is as controversial as it is daunting, and commission members can expect an earful during their two-day visit.

"Defense waste like we have at Savannah River Site is a big part of the picture, but commercial nuclear fuel is part of the issue, too," said Rick McLeod, the executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, an economic development group that will make a presentation to the commission Friday.

McLeod's group is among almost two dozen entities in the region that have opposed the Obama administration's decision to abandon the government's Yucca Mountain project, on which $13 billion had been spent during a decade-long effort to create a permanent nuclear waste repository 90 miles from Las Vegas.

The Blue Ribbon Commission was tasked with recommending alternatives to that now-defunct project, which had been designed to accommodate 70,000 tons of waste from the nation's 104 commercial reactors, which are generating about 2,000 additional tons of spent fuel each year.

It was also to be a disposal site for material from 121 temporary sites, including SRS, where high-level defense wastes vitrified in glass and sealed in metal canisters are in storage with no clear path to final disposition.

"The commission is visiting multiple defense sites, but this will be the first time they will actually see vitrified glass in canisters that were destined for Yucca Mountain," McLeod said. "The community feels like a promise was made that the waste was to be vitrified to their criteria and it was supposed to go to Yucca, but promises got broken -- so what's the alternative?"

Commission members plan to tour waste sites and other facilities at the U.S. Energy Department site Thursday and have scheduled a day-long meeting at the Augusta Marriott Riverwalk on Friday.

During that meeting, they will hear comments from invitees that include the governors -- and governors-elect -- of both South Carolina and Georgia, along with eight U.S. senators and members of Congress and local and national environmental groups.

Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, fears South Carolina might be forced to take on an even larger nuclear waste role than it already has.

"I believe that the commission's meeting being held near SRS indicates that they are unfortunately eying the site for a role in future high-level waste management, which poses a real risk that SRS could become the new Yucca Mountain," said Clements, who is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion during Friday's meeting in Augusta.

Jim Giusti, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS, said commission members will tour many of the facilities Thursday, and the public will be offered a limited opportunity to visit some of the same areas.

Participants won't be in the same bus as commission members but will see many of the facilities. Registration for the public tour opens at 8 a.m. Monday, and will close at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Register by calling (803) 952--8467.

A co-chairman of the 15-member Blue Ribbon group, Scowcroft, a national security advisor to two presidents, announced in September his plans to visit the Energy Department's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, in addition to SRS. The group is scheduled to make its first recommendations in fall 2011.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 860-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.

If you go

THURSDAY'S TOUR: A drive-by tour of some of Savannah River Site's facilities visited by commission members is being offered to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration opens at 8 a.m. Monday and closes at 5 p.m. Tuesday. About 80 seats are available. Register by calling (803) 952-8467.

FRIDAY'S PUBLIC MEETING: It is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. at Augusta Marriott Riverwalk.

Blue Ribbon Commission: details and background: http://brc.gov/

Federal Register details on Augusta meeting: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2010/pdf/2010-32579.pdf