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

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

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A crowd listens to Maxcine Maxted, the used fuel program manager at Savannah River Site. Some in attendance worried that Aiken County would become the world's nuclear waste dump, while others said processing waste at SRS would make the world safer.  JON-MICHAEL SULLIVAN/STAFF/
A crowd listens to Maxcine Maxted, the used fuel program manager at Savannah River Site. Some in attendance worried that Aiken County would become the world's nuclear waste dump, while others said processing waste at SRS would make the world safer.

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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seenitB4 06/25/14 - 08:23 am
to be known as the world’s spent dump.”

I am mixed about this...will the day come that it will be impossible to accept any more waste, Yes, I would look at all sides of this.

SCEagle Eye
SCEagle Eye 06/25/14 - 03:21 pm
German waste should stay in Germany

The Germans have the ability to deal with their own spent fuel and should follow their own law and do so. The real proliferation risk may be shipping it to the US for reprocessing. The Germans should get on with siting a geologic repository for this and other commercial spent fuel. Or, deploy SRNL technology in Germany. Who was it who said "Yucca Mountain by default..."? ;)

Reindeargirl 06/25/14 - 10:30 am
Don't Waste Aiken

The Germans are a highly technological and stable society. They can deal with their own waste. Sell or give them the technology we developed to dissolve the spheres and let them do it themselves. By letting them dump their waste on us, we are opening the door and the argument that the SRS should be the home for ALL orphaned high level waste all over the world. There is NO permanent place for this stuff to go, NO exit strategy. . .we will be stuck with it here FOREVER. The DOE can't build or keep open ANY permanent repository. The state of SC needs to wake up and realize that its not always about the $$$. Its about the future of our state and the toxic legacy we will leave if we keep allowing more and more waste to be dumped here.

jimmymac 06/25/14 - 10:46 am

German waste should stay in Germany and SC shouldn't allow any more waste period. The Obama administration has been trying to defund MOX and underfund the rest of the SRS. Let Obama find a place to store new waste. Like the repository he shuttered after 10 billion was spent at Yucca Mountain.

Riverman1 06/25/14 - 12:37 pm
A Major Story

This Yucca Mt. by default thing is a story in itself. Nevada received billions of dollars for the project, yet Harry Reid found a way to get them out of fulfilling their end of the bargain. SRS gets little and puts us at risk for about 10 million years.

Navy Gary
Navy Gary 06/25/14 - 11:47 pm

Germany is getting out of the atomic energy business. There is nowhere to safely put waste that is deadly to all life forms for tens of thousands of years. It's stupid to think that nuclear power is anything else but DEATH. It is a scourge.

jimmymac 06/29/14 - 01:01 pm

I disagree with your assessment of Nuclear Power as being dangerous. Obama is killing the fossil fuel powered electric plants so it's going to be either nuclear power or candles.

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