The waste isn't burning at Savannah River Site's Consolidated Incineration Facility, but the midnight oil is.
Officials at the federal nuclear-weapons site have until April 1, 2002, to decide what to do with the shuttered, $100 million plant - and how to treat more than 100,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste that the facility was supposed to handle.
If the U.S. Department of Energy decides to restart the incinerator, it will have to seek a new operating permit from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. That process could take months or even years, site officials acknowledged.
And if the site decides to abandon the incinerator, it must dismantle it within 180 days - a task that would require millions of dollars.
"It was the only viable technology that they had to reduce that particular waste stream," said Wade Waters, a member of the site's Citizens Advisory Board, whose committee has studied the issue. "They have a very short time to come up with something.
"They are going to have to make a decision pretty soon, and it's going to be a very costly affair any way we go at it."
Site officials said they were confident they could beat the deadline.
"I think that's enough time to make that decision," said Ray Hannah, a program manager for the Energy Department at SRS.
SRS officials shut down the 4-year-old incinerator last year, after determining it was too expensive to use to burn thousands of gallons of PUREX solvent at the site.
The solvent, used in the site's massive reprocessing plants, is contaminated with plutonium, uranium, strontium, cesium and other radioactive materials, said Ray Hannah, a program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy at SRS.
The site has about 37,000 gallons of PUREX waste in storage now, and more than 100,000 additional gallons will be slated for disposal in the future, SRS officials have said.
The incinerator had an operating budget of about $20 million a year. But safety concerns and permit limits caused SRS workers to dilute PUREX by as much as one-half before burning it, limiting the facility to treatment of only about 5,000 gallons of PUREX per year, SRS officials said.
Scientists are evaluating solutions that could be more cost-effective, said Peter Hudson, planning and technology manager for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. Savannah River Corp. The contractor operates the site's solid-waste division for the Energy Department.
But SRS officials insist that the new methods must be thoroughly tested, saying they don't want to repeat the mistakes made with the site's In-Tank Precipitation Facility. The site spent $500 million to build that plant, only to see it fail.
"I would not like to go through that scenario," Mr. Hannah said. "In April 2002, if we decide to pursue an alternative, we still need to fully develop that alternative and deploy it."
South Carolina regulators are willing to extend deadlines to give the site more time to develop new methods of treating the waste, said Keith Collinsworth, federal facilities liaison for DHEC.
But if the Energy Department decides to close the incinerator, it will be held to the 180-day standard for dismantling the plant, he said.
"We don't want to be the Energy Department complex's regional incinerator," Mr. Collinsworth said. "We don't want an incinerator sitting idle for many years that would attract the attention of other Energy Department sites for treatment of their hazardous-waste solvents."
Energy Department officials are trying to "define" what must be done to satisfy DHEC's closure requirements, Mr. Hannah said. At the least, the site will have to dismantle the plant to a point at which it could never again be used as an incinerator, Mr. Collinsworth said.
Current projections indicate that such a project would cost $50 million, but the estimate could vary by as much as $30 million more or less, Mr. Hannah said.
Energy Department officials wouldn't say whether money to dismantle the plant was included in the site's proposed budget for fiscal year 2002. But the looming deadline already worries some observers.
"I'm concerned about it," Mr. Waters said. "We do have some very serious concerns about the deadline, as well as the money to do whatever is required."
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.