Originally created 02/09/02

Site faces review of cesium cleanup



Two major Savannah River Site programs already face changes under efforts to reform the U.S. Department of Energy's environmental-cleanup program.

The site's "melt-and-dilute" project and its "alternative salt disposition" program are under review, said Greg Rudy, the Energy Department's manager at SRS, during a meeting Friday at Aiken Technical College.

The salt-disposition project was to replace the site's $489 million In-Tank Precipitation Facility, which suffered a highly publicized failure in January 1998.

A replacement plant was expected to cost $1 billion. Instead, the Energy Department now might use the existing "Saltstone" plant at SRS to do much of the work, Mr. Rudy said.

Saltstone would solidify the liquid waste, which contains highly radioactive cesium, in blocks of concrete-like grout that would remain at SRS. Originally, the cesium was to have been removed from the waste, vitrified in glass, and sent off-site to be buried.

Under existing licenses, Saltstone could be used to dispose of some cesium waste as is, Mr. Rudy said.

Even more of the waste could be handled at Saltstone after a treatment process, Mr. Rudy said. By doing so, the site could build a much smaller, cheaper plant to treat the most troublesome cesium waste, he said.

"We are dissecting the salt problem," Mr. Rudy said. "We want a multipronged approach to start the treatment process earlier and reduce the risks earlier."

The salt-disposition program is slated to receive $26 million under the president's budget proposal for fiscal year 2003, said John Pescosolido, the Energy Department's chief financial officer at SRS.

Work on the $1.9 billion "melt-and-dilute" program has been suspended, Mr. Rudy said. The project was designed to get rid of spent nuclear fuel from foreign and domestic research reactors.

The fuel contains highly enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons.

The "melt-and-dilute" plant would have melted the spent fuel and mixed the molten metal with depleted uranium. The ore would have been forged into ingots, then shipped elsewhere for burial.

Now the site might dispose of the fuel using existing methods, Mr. Pescosolido said.

One possibility would be to dissolve the fuel in one of the site's reprocessing plants, Mr. Pescosolido said. The fuel also could be sent off-site to be buried intact, he said.

The decision to suspend the melt-and-dilute program drew criticism from one nuclear-watchdog group.

"It's certainly a wrongheaded decision, and it's going to lead to trouble in managing the spent fuel at SRS," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Canceling the melt-and-dilute program would lead to an additional waste burden and would likely result in higher costs for the management of the research reactor fuel," Mr. Clements said.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.