In a sunny yard at Savannah River Site last week, workers monitored the radiation from a 55-gallon steel drum they had just recovered from a mound of dirt nearby.
It was one of 28,000 drums and 3,000 other containers filled with contaminated garbage they must get ready for a 1,400-mile trip cross-country. Some have been sitting on covered pads at the federal plant since the early 1970s.
If things go as planned -- and barring litigation by environmental groups -- the first truckload of radioactive waste will leave South Carolina for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico a year from now. Nearly 1,200 shipments are expected to follow until 2033.
The departure of the drums will be a novelty for a facility used to being on the receiving end of nuclear leftovers.
"It's a big milestone," said Sam Kelly, vice president for SRS' solid waste division. "The concept of (the plant) being a dust bin is something that worries people. In this particular case, it's quite the opposite."
Known as WIPP, the underground New Mexico desert dump eventually will swallow 850,000 waste drums from 23 federal defense sites in 16 states. After years of delays, it received a long-awaited license Wednesday from the Environmental Protection Agency to start operating.
The same day, Energy Secretary Federico Pena notified Congress that the world's first repository for nuclear defense waste was ready to open.
"I am proud of this achievement," Mr. Pena said in a statement. "With the opening of the WIPP, we will be taking a substantial step forward in the environmentally safe cleanup of the nation's former nuclear weapons production sites."
The drums headed for New Mexico contain transuranic waste, another term for rags, clothing and tools contaminated by plutonium. The equipment was used in the production of weapons material and will remain radioactive for at least 24,000 years, SRS officials say.
The first shipment, from New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, is expected to arrive to WIPP in late June -- 24 years after the dump was proposed.
That is, if environmental groups don't make good on their promise to hold up the process in court. New Mexico Attorney General Tom Udall also opposes the dump, carved out of ancient salt beds in the southern New Mexico desert.
Mr. Udall participated in a lawsuit in 1991 that led to an injunction blocking the opening of WIPP in 1992. Environmental groups argue that injunction is still in place.
"We're considering our options," Kay Bird, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said last week. "We believe WIPP has not been proved safe."
Critics of the dump question whether the nuclear waste will remain undisturbed in the ground like Energy Department experts say, pointing to the drilling for oil and gas that goes on in the area.
"Keep in mind that this stuff is going to be there for 10,000 years," Ms. Bird said. "At any point, some future person could come along and think, `Oh, there might be gas here,' and use air or water to drill and blow out the waste."
There are already about 200 drill holes within two miles of the dump, said Don Hancock of Southwest Research and Information Center, an Albuquerque-based environmental group.
As for shipping SRS waste by next year, "That's a bunch of garbage," Mr. Hancock said.
Expected litigation, along with a recent order by the EPA to approve the waste-certification process at each defense site, could mean the drums will be sitting at SRS for years to come, he said.
But such predictions don't discourage folks at SRS, who look forward to closing yet another chapter in the plant's history.
"We're all set to go," Mr. Kelly said.
One by one, the drums are checked for external radioactivity, labeled, X-rayed, weighed and purged of potentially explosive gases. Drums that contain nails or other sharp objects that could puncture the steel are placed in larger shipping containers.
It's cumbersome work that will take years to complete. In fact, each drum generates some 800 pieces of paper before it's ready to hit the road, said Joe D'Amelio, transuranic waste business manager for Westinghouse Savannah River Co.
"The paperwork is the holdup in this process," he said.
SRS hopes one day to send another type of waste -- spent nuclear fuel rods and other high-level products -- to another underground dump, in the Nevada desert. The opening of that facility is likely a decade or more away, however. And like New Mexicans, many residents in Nevada aren't crazy about having nuclear waste buried in their state.
"It's just the nature of the game, I guess," said Toni Chiri, a WIPP spokeswoman. "We anticipate a lawsuit, so we're ready."
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