Getting dumped on

What are those tunnels for at the Savannah River site?

Thank God we're not Nevada, huh?

The folks in The Payoff State have had their hands full trying to fight government plans to bury 50 years' worth of radioactive crap under a once-sacred mountain on land that even the feds concede is — or was, according to an official U.S. treaty — Indian property.

At least here we don't have to worry about nuclear waste being buried deep under the Georgia earth.

Or do we?

Turns out that as recently as the 1970s, workmen were digging a series of massive holes — some as deep as 1,500 feet — into the hard rock beneath the Savannah River Site, a complex of shut-down reactors and facilities that once constructed nuclear "triggers" for atomic weapons just across the Savannah River from Augusta, Ga.

Why were they drilled? To store nuclear waste.

Not to worry, says Westinghouse Savannah River Co. spokesman Bruce Cadotte. (Westinghouse runs the site for the Department of Energy.) That idea — and a reported 8,000 feet of subterranean tunnels dug in its pursuit, according to 1972 reports — was "all abandoned years ago, back when Jimmy Carter was governor," Cadotte says.

Asked whether the deep-rock borings — some 15 feet in diameter — have been capped or filled, Cadotte shrugs off the issue. "It was 30 years ago," he says. "Who even cares anymore?"

Well, we do. The Savannah River Site, decommissioned a decade ago, is now being resurrected as a place to take old nuclear bombs and recycle them into high-octane mixed-oxide. The MOX, as it's called, would serve as fuel for a whole generation of bang-up new reactors. The holes beneath the site would be a tempting place to store the radioactive leftovers for a millennium or two.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also worried. In 1998 correspondence, the agency expressed alarm at a Savannah River Site proposal to dispose of plutonium by burying it beneath the Middendorf aquifer, the region's major water supply. What were they worried about?

Cadotte has no idea. Much ado about nothing.

But folks who've been following operations at the facility for years are not convinced. And, until recently, Georgia's own radiological officials were unaware of the location of the tunnels — or even if they still existed.

"I had heard through the grapevine that these holes were there," says Jim Hardeman, manager of Georgia's Environmental Radiation Program. "It was before my time here, but my understanding is that they'd planned to pour a kind of slurry of radioactive waste down these holes, and say 'OK.' Needless to say, [Georgia officials] took a dim view of that idea."

That view would likely be even dimmer today. According to Hardeman, recent findings seem to confirm long-held suspicions that water from the South Carolina side of the river is apparently making its way beneath the Savannah River to the Georgia side — water that could easily contain any or all of the myriad radioactive and industrial contaminants present at the massively polluted site.

Now there's concern that the bore-holes may be back in play.

"For God's sake, why would you ship plutonium to SRS to begin with, if you wanted to get rid of it and you wanted to ship this sort of stuff to Yucca Mountain eventually?" asks Pamela Blockey O'Brien, the longtime anti-nuclear activist who spent more than a year tracking down the existence of the tunnels, and finally pried free a map of the borings.

O'Brien points to an ongoing program to dispose of some 35 million gallons of extremely high-level radioactive liquid sludge at Savannah River Site, sludge that contains, according to the DOE, 420 million curies of radioactive isotopes. Using a process known as "vitrification," the waste is mixed with molten glass, resulting in 10-foot-long, 2-foot-wide radioactive logs. These glass logs are among the waste destined, according to Cadotte, for eventual shipment to a federal waste repository — probably Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

O'Brien is also worried about the MOX project. When the program began, the Savannah River Site had two tons of plutonium on-site; an estimated 50 tons will eventually find its way there for reprocessing. Since the fuel is much more radioactive than that used in current power-generating reactors, a new type of reactor is being developed. But these reactors don't use up all the plutonium; much remains in the MOX fuel waste.

If you think a world in detente doesn't need plutonium anymore, think again. Just last week, the House Appropriations Committee allocated $4 million to design a facility to manufacture more plutonium pits. Although the location of that plant hasn't been announced, the fact that every other nuclear weapons site in the country is shutting down (and sending their crud to South Carolina) makes for an interesting game of connect-the-dots.

"This whole thing is all fitting together," says O'Brien. "You reprocess the nuclear fuel, extract the plutonium 239 from the MOX process, pop the waste down the holes, and do re-processing for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. We're talking billions of dollars here."

Meanwhile, studies of a surface well in Burke County, Ga. — just across the river from the Savannah River Site — show evidence of tritium, a radioactive by-product of manufacturing plutonium triggers for bombs. And a recent U.S. Geological Survey report provides evidence that water from South Carolina has, in fact, seeped under the river and is now beneath the ground in Screven County, Ga., near Savannah.

"It's possible we could be seeing some migration through those holes," Hardeman says. "I don't know if they're capped, or open — I don't know anything about 'em."

As to whether the holes might make for convenient storage for radioactive glass logs or other waste, says Hardeman, "it would certainly be convenient ... [but] it would probably not be a very smart decision politically or career-wise for the official who made it."

O'Brien suspects an even more sinister subtext.

"For years, the DOE's wanted an East Coast repository — someplace with crystal-rock formations, and under such brackish water that nobody'd ever want to excavate there." She arches a brow with a bitter smile. "Someplace just like the Savannah River Site."