Federal budget cuts could push Savannah River Site out of compliance with radioactive waste cleanup commitments made to South Carolina.
The commitments – outlined in a federal facilities agreement between the Energy Department and South Carolina’s Department of Health & Environmental Control – include schedules for closing 47 underground storage tanks filled with Cold War nuclear waste.
David Moody, the Energy Department’s site manager, said state officials have been advised that reduced federal budgets could put the department out of compliance with the agreement as early as 2015, and almost certainly by 2016.
Originally, there were 51 underground tanks at the site. Two were closed in the 1990s, and two more were closed last year, with efforts underway to complete the closure of two more tanks this year.
Closure involves emptying the tanks, processing the waste and filling in the aging, carbon-steel vats with a specialized grout. Each tank is 86 feet across and 44 feet deep, and all are buried 10 to 12 feet below ground level.
During a forum at Aiken Technical College earlier this week, Moody said there are funds available to complete the closure of the two tanks this year, including the final grout process.
“What we’ve started communicating is that we may not have the funds to grout and close the next tanks,” he said.
A possible change under discussion with South Carolina involves using available funds in 2014 and 2015 to clean out the tanks and process the waste, but to postpone the final grouting process until more funds are available.
“We are looking for opportunities to continue risk reduction but with a different approach,” Moody said.
The final grouting process is time-consuming and expensive.
“It’s like filling two high school gymnasiums with concrete,” Moody said.
If the grouting is postponed, failure to complete the closures on time could violate the agreement.
“Technically, versus the federal facilities agreement, we could be out of compliance with cleaning and closing tanks perhaps as early as ’15 and certainly by ’16,” Moody said.
Such delays would also lengthen the overall tank cleanup and closure program by several years. Current estimates place the completion date at 2042 with an approximate cost of $60 billion.