Originally created 08/05/98

Closure of tanks at issue



WASHINGTON -- An environmental group is challenging the U.S. Department of Energy's plan to close high-level nuclear waste tanks stored at Savannah River Site.

But DOE officials say the department's strategy for the tanks has received the blessings of state and federal environmental regulators.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition late last week asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to assume control of the planned closure of the 51 underground tanks. The DOE already has closed two of the tanks, and is scheduled to close the rest by 2022 under an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The Cold War-era production of nuclear weapons at the complex near Aiken has left in its wake 34 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste. Most of the material is stored in underground tanks at the site's F and H canyons.

Under a process designed by the DOE two years ago with public input, the majority of the waste in the tanks will be removed and shipped to a permanent storage site. The waste left in the tanks then will be combined with a specially designed grout to form a solid material, which will remain underground.

But that still will leave about 1,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons of high-level waste in each tank, said Brian Costner, an environmental consultant and former South Carolinian who has been active on SRS issues.

"They're going to spend billions of dollars and still have thousands of gallons of very dangerous waste," he said. "It will be more solidified, but it will still be there."

But the DOE is removing as much of the waste from the tanks as is technologically and economically feasible, said Larry Ling, senior program manager for high-level waste at SRS.

"We've removed 99.9 percent of the waste in the two tanks we've closed already," he said. "There's less than a quarter-inch of material in the tanks."

Mr. Costner said bringing in the NRC could put pressure on the DOE to come up with a strategy that would remove even more of the waste from the tanks.

But Mr. Ling said both the EPA and the state DHEC already have signed off on the DOE plan, while the department voluntarily has asked for a review by the NRC.

"We've gone through a lot of reviews, and we feel like one more review wouldn't hurt," he said.

Mr. Ling said the EPA and DHEC approved the plan in July 1996. Subsequently, SRS officials closed the first tank in July of last year, and closure of the second tank was completed last December.

But he said the DOE won't continue with the closures until the NRC has finished its review and made its recommendations. A final report from the commission is expected by the end of this month, he said.

Preliminary results of that evaluation are not promising. The environmental group's petition cites a letter dated June 30 in which the NRC's Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analysis faults the DOE plan for "numerous inadequacies, inconsistencies and improper assumptions."

But Mr. Ling said he is optimistic, based on a meeting between SRS officials and NRC staff last week, that the DOE will be able to address the commission's concerns satisfactorily.

NRC spokesman Victor Dricks would not comment on the petition, other than to say the commission will review the group's complaints and issue a decision.