Originally created 10/07/06

Officials search SRS for waste

AIKEN - State environmental officials were dispatched Friday to the Savannah River Site to investigate allegations that concrete vaults are leaking radioactive waste into the environment.

Inspectors with the Department of Health and Environmental Control looked at so-called "saltstone" cells that contain low-level waste mixed with grout, said Shelly Sherritt, a DHEC liaison to SRS.

The agency found no irregularities in the storage cells that it regulates but did find moisture on the outside of a cell containing depleted uranium, which it doesn't have authority over, Ms. Sherritt said.

However, soil samples taken outside that cell show no signs of contamination, said Jim Giusti, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns SRS.

The depleted uranium in the vault came from the Navy in 55-gallon drums and was covered in noncontaminated grout, Mr. Giusti said.

DHEC received an anonymous letter last month alleging that waste "is being leached out and running into the ground."

Though the vaults were deemed safe Friday, they have a history of leaking.

The storage units went operational about 1990 and were built to store lower levels of radioactive waste left over from years of Cold War nuclear weapons production at SRS.

But officials discovered the grout-waste mix was leaching through some of the vaults, and the process currently is on hold. The leaching was caused by rainwater, and the problem was eliminated by placing a protective cover over some vaults, Mr. Giusti said.

Another of the vaults continues to leak, but an additional containment system was installed to prevent any of the water from reaching surrounding soil, he said. Warning signs have been posted nearby and the DOE routinely tests soil samples, none of which have revealed contamination, Mr. Giusti said.

This week DHEC issued a modified permit that, if approved, would allow the DOE to start putting waste into the vaults again.

DHEC remains confident the vaults are safe, Ms. Sherritt said.

"We did feel a need to look into the situation to make sure that the corrective measures that had been taken were still effective," she said.

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


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