Originally created 07/25/06

S. Carolina presses on cleanup at SRS

NORTH AUGUSTA - South Carolina is getting tough with the U.S. Department of Energy over the cleanup of high-level nuclear waste at Savannah River Site.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control is denying the DOE needed permits until the federal agency recommits to removing radioactive waste in the safest possible manner, according to officials and letters between Gov. Mark Sanford and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

The two sides have negotiated since December about how to best remove 36 million gallons of nuclear waste stored in 49 tanks at the site - the most dangerous hazard at the nuclear reservation.

The Energy Department already has missed state deadlines to empty some tanks.

Mr. Sanford fired the latest salvo Monday in the form of a tersely worded letter to Mr. Bodman.

"Let me be clear, our request then (December) and now, remains a commitment from the DOE that the nuclear waste stored in tanks at SRS will be disposed of in a safe and effective manner," Mr. Sanford wrote.

SRS officials are able to remove the most deadly waste left over from the production of Cold War weapons, which is being mixed with glass and stored at the site until it can be shipped out of state.

Complications center on how to best separate dangerous radioactivity from lower-level waste that will be buried at SRS. Federal officials have been forced to find an interim separation process because the long-term method, called the Salt Waste Processing Facility, has been delayed until 2011.

State officials rejected the first interim method DOE brought to the table because it would leave behind too much radioactivity at SRS. The federal agency has since devised a method that will leave behind less radioactivity, according to a July 6 letter Mr. Bodman wrote to Mr. Sanford, but it can't be implemented without permits the state won't give.

"Prompt issuance of the permits is critical to the department's salt waste strategy," Mr. Bodman wrote.

The federal agency had hoped to start the permit process in March so it could start the modified cleanup approach July 1, according to Mr. Bodman's letter and officials familiar with the plan. Delaying low-level waste removal also threatens to stop the removal of high-level waste, a result that could further strain relations between the state and the DOE.

State officials, however, said they were unaware of DOE's permit demands, and, regardless, won't meet them until they get a signed memorandum of commitment.

"As part of the permit process, we said we need more from you," said Shelly Sherritt, a DHEC official who works on permitting at SRS.

The state is right to ask for more, said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who has worked with the Energy Department on cleanup issues.

The DOE has a poor track record of keeping its word with the state, including delays with the tank-cleanup process, he said.

"I stand shoulder to shoulder with Mark," Mr. Graham said of the governor's stance.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.


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