Catherine Templeton, director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Compliance, has threatened to fine the U.S. Department of Energy over inadequate funding to build the Salt Waste Processing Facility at Savannah River Site. The salt facility is designed to treat the high-level radioactive waste stored in aging tanks prior to its solidification at SRS.
For DHEC to follow the letter of the law on the delay by forcing the DOE to complete the salt facility – when the fault is not entirely the DOE’s – would add costs to the treatment of high-level wastes at a time when the government is reducing funds for SRS.
In 2005, the Citizens Advisory Board at SRS held a meeting with the independent Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, site engineers, DHEC and citizens. The citizens and DHEC wanted the salt facility to open in 2009 as scheduled. Instead, the Defense Board forced the DOE into redesigning the salt waste processing facility to better protect against earthquakes. DHEC and the citizens protested this decision as a mistake.
The advisory board believed that it was a mistake to delay the salt facility because the poor state of the cracked tanks and aged pipes at SRS had virtually no protection against earthquakes. The board felt that the DOE’s design of the salt facility already was adequate for earthquakes; the board argued that any redesign could well delay the salt facility indefinitely. The Defense Board, not the DOE, effectively converted the salt facility into what we feared – an overly expensive and protective facility sitting unused amid cracked tanks.
DHEC’s threat against the DOE is not helpful for another reason. Aware of the danger of aging tanks containing high-level wastes, the DOE has been upgrading its two pilot plants at SRS so that it can perform some of the work that the salt waste processing facility was designed to handle.
The threat by DHEC to fine the DOE ignores that the Defense Safety Board forced the DOE to delay the salt facility beyond its startup date of 2009, and it ignores the work by the DOE to use its pilot facilities for the salt facility. Instead of wasting scarce resources on fines, DHEC and our citizens should help the DOE to continue to treat and vitrify high-level wastes at SRS.