Don't dump this on us

Permanent storage of nuclear waste is an alarming turn in SRS' mission

Savannah River Site is not now, nor has it ever been, a dump for high-level nuclear waste.

 

But as long as the nation dithers on the mothballed Yucca Mountain repository, a dump is precisely what SRS moves a step closer to becoming under a proposal to import nearly one ton of highly-enriched uranium from Germany.

The Department of Energy’s plan to ship 900 kilograms of used reactor fuel for processing and disposal at SRS, ostensibly for nuclear nonproliferation reasons, is out for public review and comment until July 21.

What the public should realize is that it doesn’t matter which of the three “disposal” options the DOE pursues at SRS. The end result is the same – long-term storage at a facility that never was intended to be a high-level waste repository.

This plan essentially turns SRS, which has 713,000 people living within a 50-mile radius, into a nuclear Roach Motel. Highly radioactive material checks in, but it doesn’t check out.

The end of the road for such waste was supposed to be the deep-geologic repository at Yucca Mountain, a cavern carved from igneous rock 1,000 feet below ground in a desolate section of Nevada desert on a federal reservation larger than the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey combined.

That project – funded since 1982, selected in a process established by law in 1987 and under construction since 1994 – was summarily killed in 2009 during one of the first acts of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Today, the $15 billion facility gathers dust, as does the 2012 report by Obama’s “Blue Ribbon Commission” on nuclear waste, whose suggested Yucca Mountain “alternatives” include building interim regional storage sites to hold waste for up to 100 years.

Make no mistake – when this administration says “disposal” at SRS, it means just that. Permanent storage is the only option as long as Yucca Mountain remains off the table.

Sorry, Washington, but this community never signed up for that.

Backers of the importation plan, which include the Energy Department and area chambers of commerce, say the deal simply repatriates U.S.-originated uranium sent abroad during the Eisenhower-era “Atoms for Peace” research program to share nuclear technology with the world.

Opponents say Germany – which also lacks a long-term repository – simply is trying to rid itself of high-level waste by reclassifying commercial units as “research” reactors to make the material legal for export. The SRS Citizens Advisory Board already has voiced opposition to bringing spent commercial fuel to the site.

But politics and semantics aside, transporting any high-level waste to SRS without an exit strategy simply is a bad deal for the community any way you slice it. Where’s the upside?

The area this work would occur, H-Canyon, already is federally funded. Beyond a handful of research jobs at the Savannah River National Laboratory – which developed the technology to extract uranium from the irradiated graphite fuel balls – who else benefits? The German government? A few shipping companies?

If we’re missing something here, please, let us know. To date, there has been no economic-benefit analysis. And how extensive has the environmental study been?

This page has long been a proponent of SRS’ defense and environmental missions, including the proposed mixed-oxide fuel facility that the Obama administration dubiously placed in “cold standby” earlier this year. We see clear value in that project, which would remove 34 metric tons of Soviet-era, weapons-grade plutonium from Russia and convert it to a form of fuel for nuclear power plants.

But there is little value in importing what is arguably commercial waste from a wealthy political ally when the United States has no permanent waste-disposal solution of its own.

The German deal would add as many as 100 canisters of high-level vitrified waste to the 3,800 already sitting at SRS with nowhere to go, and it could open the door for disposal agreements with other nations as well.

The DOE proposal is salt in the wound President Obama inflicted five years ago when he erased three decades of scientific study, legislative toil and taxpayer expenditures, all for the express purpose of improving the political fortunes of a lone senator from Clark County, Nev.

In addition to all the high-level waste being warehoused at federal facilities nationwide, this administration’s nuclear-waste policy vacuum also slams the door on America’s commercial nuclear power industry, whose plants are sitting on 72,000 tons of used nuclear fuel that has no place to go.

And after all that, this administration has the gall to ask us to accept hazardous waste from a foreign nation?

Until the political winds change and Yucca Mountain is put back on track, the Augusta-Aiken metro area’s response to taking on “disposal” duties outlined in the DOE-Germany deal should be a resounding “no.”

Public comments heard on proposed German waste shipments to Savannah River Site
Savannah River Site takes another step for potential German waste shipments
German nuclear waste could be shipped to Savannah River Site

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