Originally created 02/26/03

Accident at plant would hit the poor



AIKEN - Regulators say in a new report that accidents are unlikely at Savannah River Site's proposed mixed-oxide fuel plant.

If there were an accident, they say, minorities and the poor would be the most affected. Jackson, New Ellenton and other rural towns surround SRS.

The report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a sort of safety evaluation of the MOX plans. The plant would convert weapons plutonium for use in commercial power-plant reactors.

The environmental impact statement, a just-released, 503-page draft document, is available to the public for comment until April 14.

The report says that one of the worst scenarios would be from a tritium release. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen used in nuclear weapons. The decommissioned warheads are to be taken apart to remove the plutonium for the MOX fuel.

Using a hypothetical accident at the building where nuclear warheads are to be disassembled for the program, the report tries to predict the effects of a year's worth of tritium exposure. The report estimates that 400 off-site cancer deaths could occur.

Glenn Carroll, a spokeswoman with Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, called the higher risk of exposure to the minority poor over other outside populations a "social justice issue."

"SRS has been releasing tritium routinely and accidentally for years without environmental review," she said.

In terms of short-term impact on health, the report says, an explosion at the MOX plant would be the worst type of accident, with an estimated 20 eventual cancer fatalities off the site.

For the purposes of the report, "short-term" was defined as an eight-hour exposure.

Tim Harris, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission project manager who oversaw the document, said the numbers are based on average statistics, with the larger off-site population accounting for more possible exposures.

Mr. Harris said it is safe to say that "some workers would be severely impacted" at the site.

PUBLIC FORUM

A public forum on the MOX report will take place at the North Augusta Community Center on March 26. An open house will start at 5:30 p.m. and the public meeting at 7 p.m.

To get more information or a copy of the report, call the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Tim Harris at (301) 415-6613.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.