With the price of cleanup rising daily, a Savannah River Site watchdog group put an Aug. 15 deadline on negotiations between South Carolina and the U.S. Department of Energy over the cleanup of dangerous nuclear waste.
The SRS Citizens Advisory Board, a volunteer organization funded by the DOE, voted unanimously Tuesday for the deadline during its review of waste treatment issues at a regular meeting in North Augusta.
The group hopes to end an impasse between the state and DOE that has dragged on since December, members said. Its deadline isn't binding but both agencies pay close attention to what the organization recommends.
"We got them to the altar. We can't do anymore than this," CAB member Bill Lawless said.
The DOE is working to remove waste left from Cold War weapons production and stored in 49 tanks at SRS.
The agency had hoped to start removing less radioactive portions July 1, according to a July 6 letter Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman sent Gov. Mark Sanford.
But the waste is supposed to be buried in underground vaults at SRS and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control won't give DOE needed permits because it has concerns about the level of radioactivity that will be left behind.
The DOE has introduced removal technologies that are supposed to cut the original radioactivity estimate in half, documents show, but the state is holding out for renewed commitment from Mr. Bodman that his agency will safely carry out the cleanup.
It costs an estimated $1 million per day to store the waste and, even if DHEC were to issue permits by Aug. 15, DOE would still have to wait until October to start the work, officials say.
The CAB might be asking too much.
"Those dates are very aggressive dates," said Shelly Sherritt, a DHEC official who handles permitting at SRS. "There's a lot to work out to even reach those dates."
The DOE has sustained multiple, costly setbacks as it attempts to separate high- and low-level waste in the tanks.
On the other hand, the technology it uses to remove high level waste that is isolated from lower levels has been a success.
The fear, however, is that the isolated high level waste removal could stop if the DOE isn't successful with lower levels.
"Just realize that we're not standing still with this," assistant DOE manager Kevin Smith told the CAB.
In a telephone interview after the meeting, DOE spokeswoman Megan Barnett said the agency was eager to renew negotiations with the state.
"We remain committed to the removal, treatment and safe disposal of tank waste at the SRS," she said.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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