Originally created 03/03/05

Officials oppose proposal to limit cleanup



South Carolina remains staunchly opposed to permanently storing significant amounts of atomic waste at Savannah River Site despite two new scientific reports that recommend doing just that, Gov. Mark Sanford's top nuclear adviser said Wednesday.

Ben Rusche, the chairman of the Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council, said state officials are committed to pushing federal energy officials to remove as much Cold War-era nuclear weapons waste as is technically and economically feasible.

"The continuing, consistent view of the council and the governor is to get as much of this off site as is practically possible," said Mr. Rusche, a former SRS employee and official with both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy.

But reports from two National Academy of Sciences panels urge DOE to revamp its $140 billion cleanup plans for nuclear weapons waste, with an eye toward transporting less of the radioactive material to underground repositories in New Mexico and Nevada.

One of the reports also urges DOE to keep waste processing plants open at its most contaminated sites, including SRS, to treat atomic material from other nuclear weapons facilities.

This would mean the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRS, which encases high-level nuclear waste in glass logs earmarked for eventual storage at the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, would also handle high-level waste shipped from other facilities.

These moves would cut the cost and time of cleanup programs, the reports said. Under the accelerated cleanup program now in place, DOE officials expect to complete most waste treatment and disposal projects in 20 years.

South Carolina officials say they will fight any legislative effort to increase the amount of nuclear waste left at SRS.

"We want to get as much waste as possible out of our state, but we don't want to expose our citizens to any health risks as we do that," said Sanford spokesman Will Folks.

Although state officials oppose keeping more nuclear waste at SRS, they agreed with another section of the reports that found "it is infeasible to recover and dispose of every last bit of waste."

That supports a law pushed through Congress late last year by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that will allow the nuclear sludge at the bottom of 51 steel tanks holding an estimated 34 million gallons of high-level waste to be grouted in place rather than removed, they say.

The reports also recommend DOE be granted some leeway in reclassifying some atomic waste defined as "high-level" and "transuranic" by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. But the report also said either the Environmental Protection Agen-cy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should oversee any reclassification.

This law requires these types of waste to be deposited in deep underground repositories such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant facility in New Mexico and the proposed Yucca Mountain dump. The report says some of this waste should be exempted because it is either too risky or too costly to ship to a central repository.

Environmentalists opposed to both facilities say this recommendation reflects the reality of DOE's thorny defense waste problem - there's not enough room at the pilot plant or Yucca Mountain to handle all of the nuclear waste at the agency's defense sites.

They praised the report's call for either the EPA or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have the final say on reclassifying high-level nuclear waste.

"DOE must not make the final call on how clean is clean enough," said Glenn Carroll, the coordinator for Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, an Atlanta-based environmental group.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (706) 828-3904 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.