Savannah River Site: No tunnels, no way

But critics fear new nuke project

Officials at the Savannah River Site last week reiterated that a series of deep-rock borings has never been used for radioactive waste storage, and that any plans to excavate on the site were shelved decades ago ("Getting Dumped On," CL, June 20-26).

"Those are exploratory borings that go back to the mid-'60s," said Dr. Douglas Wyatt, senior geologist at the Savannah River Site. "They were drilled just to evaluate and characterize the nature of the bedrock beneath the site."

Despite published reports dating to the '70s that detailed a plan to bore thousands of feet of tunnels and caverns for nuclear waste storage, he said, no such excavations ever took place.

"No horizontal shafts or excavations were ever done. That program ended back in 1971 or '72."

The 11 steel-lined shafts — some as deep as 4,000 feet, and extending through "several" aquifers — still exist, he said, but are used only to monitor water deep beneath the surface of the sprawling South Carolina site, which sits almost across the Savannah River from Augusta.

Neither Wyatt nor SRS senior geologist Russell Beckmeyer expressed any knowledge of more recent plans to bury highly radioactive nuclear waste at the site, despite 1998 documents from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that reference "the operation of these facilities and the subsequent disposition of large quantities of immobilized plutonium in geologic repositories at the SRS ... "

"None of the high-level waste at SRS is buried; it's all in tanks," Beckmeyer said, referring to some 35 million gallons of liquid waste currently stored in 48 tanks on the site. "We do have a permitted burial ground now for low-level waste."

But while environmentalists are relieved that on-site disposal of high-level waste apparently has been ruled out, they're concerned about an ongoing project at the Savannah River Site to make a new type of nuclear fuel from used plutonium. The plutonium would be reprocessed into mixed-oxide, or MOX, which would be used as fuel in two nuclear reactors operated by South Carolina's Duke Power Company. (The fuel would not, as reported last week, be used in a new type of commercial reactor being developed, which will also use a plutonium blend fuel.)

Sara Barczak, a Savannah coordinator with Georgians for Clean Energy, says the MOX program will mean more plutonium at the Savannah River Site, not less. What's more, the government recently killed a program that would have immobilized plutonium by placing it in glass logs.

"That was the one alternative that had potential," Barczak says. The MOX program has several flaws, she says, including the wisdom of using a much more powerful fuel in old reactors; the expense and hazards of shipping plutonium through Georgia; the spotty safety record of the Savannah River Site (where, only last week, a leak in a holding tank forced the removal of 250,000 gallons of high-level waste); and the role of COGEMA — a French energy company which has severely polluted the Atlantic Ocean at the site of its Cap de la Hague nuclear plant — in the consortium handling the MOX operation.

"I don't understand why, from a national energy perspective, we're cutting funding for clean energy technologies and conservation and efficiency programs, and putting more money into things like MOX," she says.

Then there's the environmental threat. She cites a Georgia Department of Natural Resources proposal, calling for a Savannah River Corridor monitoring program, which states that air- and water-borne pollutants continue to emanate from the site, and that future projects "makes continued releases of radioactive materials likely."

She also notes that Georgia Environmental Protection Division studies have shown extensive contamination of Savannah harbor from 50 years of radioactive emissions upstream — a particular threat now that plans are underway to dredge the harbor. Further, she says, samples of tissue taken from fish in the river consistently show varying levels of contamination, even as far south as Savannah.

Even Gov. Roy Barnes has expressed alarm at radioactive "plumes" that periodically float downriver. In 1999, he sent a strongly worded letter to then-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson demanding that the issue be addressed, noting that tritium levels in the river near the City of Savannah's water intake point have fluctuated widely, at one point becoming so high that the city had to close the drinking water supply system for almost a week.

Longtime anti-nuclear activist Pamela Blockey O'Brien, who stumbled over the existence of the tunnels, is even more critical.

The Douglas County resident points to an environmental impact statement drawn up by the MOX team indicating that key structures have had to be moved because of "soft zones" in the ground, and "the potential of the soil to liquefy under certain conditions."

"What they've done is create a national sacrifice area over the most important water supply in the Southeast," she says. "The people around SRS have been irradiated and lied to for years, and they've bought into it."??