Public comments heard on proposed German waste shipments to Savannah River Site

 Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Maxcine Maxted's name.

The environmental impact of a U.S. Energy Department proposal to keep highly radioactive nuclear waste from falling into terrorists’ hands won’t be known for nearly a year or longer.

One million graphite spheres containing highly enriched uranium from German research reactors could be shipped to Savannah River Site. Scientific breakthroughs at Savannah River National Laboratory uncovered disposal methods for the waste embedded inside the spheres – each about the size of a tennis ball.

Returning the German waste to the United States would fulfill an agreement under the Atoms for Peace program, said Maxcine Maxted, the used fuel program manager at SRS.

“It minimizes highly enriched uranium in commerce. When it’s highly enriched, it’s a target for terrorists to use as weapons or some sort of dispersal to harm people,” she said.

Receiving graphite spheres is unlike anything previously done at SRS, Maxted said. The research and disposal would be funded by Germany.

About 75 people attended a public comment session Tuesday night for an environmental assessment underway by the Energy Department. Comments came from people ranging from environmentalists who oppose waste storage in South Carolina to scientists who want safe disposal of the waste.

Environmental assessments typically take nine months to 12 months to complete, Maxted said. If the assessment determines the environment could be significantly affected, a more detailed environmental impact statement would be prepared to make a determination on accepting the German waste.

If the proposal proceeds, 455 storage casks filled with the spheres would be shipped across the Atlantic ocean to a Charleston, S.C., port. From there, the used nuclear fuel containing 900 kilograms of highly enriched uranium would board a train for SRS, where it would be processed and disposed.

Modifications to the H-Canyon facilities at SRS would be used to remove thousands of small graphite spheres containing uranium. Removing graphite from all the used fuel would take about three years.

Andy Cwalina, an occupational health and safety professor at Nova Southeastern University, said SRS has an unmatched safety record that makes it an ideal location to dispose of the German waste.

The U.S. has brought back large amounts of foreign waste without a safety accident or worker injury, he said. Returning the fuel would reduce significant risks to global and national security, he said.

“Leaving the fuel in Germany does not exclude the U.S. or any other nation from the consequences of an accident,” Cwalina said. “There is simply no safer way to disposition this material.”

Environmentalists, however, fear that SRS is burdened with nuclear waste management. Many said the United States sets a dangerous precedent by accepting German waste, which could lead to requests from other nations to send waste to the site.

“We cannot open SRS to the world’s nuclear waste,” said Susan Corbett, of the South Carolina Sierra Club. “The citizens of Aiken County do not want to be known as the world’s spent dump.”

The Energy Department identified three alternatives for disposing of the uranium: downblending and reuse as reactor fuel; disposal in a radioactive waste disposal facility; or vitrification in the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS.

The three disposition alternatives would produce glass logs, similar to those made now at SRS, that require a permanent federal repository for removal from the South Carolina site, Maxted said. Vitrification would produce about 100 logs, and the other options would produce between 10 and 20 logs.

Savannah River Site has accepted spent research reactor fuel since the 1960s from every continent, Maxted said.

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