MOX knocks

Soaring costs, environmental worries plague SRS program

Following published reports detailing the existence of deep holes drilled at the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy on Monday met with Georgia environmental officials and representatives from Westinghouse SRS, which operates the facility for the government, to answer questions about the borings.

As reported by CL in May, the deep-rock borings — some going to depths of 4,000 feet — were initially drilled in the '60s and '70s as part of now-defunct program aimed at storing radioactive waste at the site.

SRS began producing tritium, a radioactive element used in nuclear weapons, back in the '50s, and continued to do so until the '80s.

Initial concerns centered on whether the dozen holes might still be planned for storage use, but SRS operators say those plans have long been abandoned. Even so, concerns arose that the holes, which penetrate through several aquifer systems providing water to the Southeast, might allow contamination to seep from contaminated surface into the aquifers.

At the meeting, SRS officials tried to allay those concerns, saying that their own procedures — and the natural pressure of water in the aquifers — would prevent any leaching of radioactive elements into the rock below the 50-square-mile site. Even so, they agreed to check the degree of radioactivity in the 10 wells which have not been sealed.

But SRS-Westinghouse environmental monitoring chief James Heffner differed sharply with local energy activist Pamela Blockey O'Brien over the degree of contamination at the site, and state Environmental Protection Division coordinator Jim Setser said SRS assurances that contamination of Georgia water was unlikely would have to be proven by a monitoring program.

"We just don't have all the answers," said Setser. "There's still a lot we don't know about the movement of water and so on. ... There's a lot of things that went on there over the years that none of us know anything about."

The meeting came amid a rapidly heating atmosphere surrounding SRS, which is located slightly north of Augusta across the Savannah River in South Carolina. Especially contentious have been DOE plans to ship in an estimated 50 tons or more of plutonium — one of the most deadly substances on Earth, and a key element of nuclear weapons.

Originally, the plutonium was to have been immobilized in glass logs and then disposed of in a national radioactive waste repository, currently being built deep beneath the deserts of Nevada.

Now, however, the Department of Energy wants to recycle much of the plutonium into a highly radioactive fuel for four nuclear power plants operated by Duke Power Co. That fuel — known as mixed-oxide, or MOX fuel — is being pushed as a way to reuse plutonium without discarding it. But according to a new Department of Energy report, the cost for that plan is rising quickly, even as concerns are being raised over subsidizing a new generation of plutonium-based reactors, and thereby mixing civilian and military nuclear programs — a collaboration that has been banned since the U.S. launched its nuclear program.

This week, South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon is expected to file suit blocking any shipments until the DOE makes some concrete guarantees that the highly radioactive element won't remain on-site indefinitely.

Under fire, the Department of Energy announced last week it would hold off on shipping any plutonium to the site until October, but indicated that it was in no way backing off the plan.

Last week, South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges seemingly awoke to the fact that his state is about to play host to tons of highly radioactive materials bound for an uncertain future and slated to reside at SRS for an indefinite period.

Concerned about cutbacks in the plutonium reprocessing program that already have scuttled a planned $1 billion storage facility at SRS, Hodges earlier this month ordered his state public safety director to prepare to hold exercises Aug. 28 in preparation for blocking any shipments to SRS.

Hodges has demanded DOE assurances that the material will not remain at SRS, and Congress this month passed a measure mandating a detailed progress by next March.

Gov. Roy Barnes also has expressed his support for Hodges, but has declined to threaten blockades in Georgia, which will provide both highway and rail routes for the plutonium shipments coming to SRS.

"[The governor] shares Hodges' concerns," says Barnes spokeswoman Jocelyn Butler. "He is still looking into it — he's very actively looking at it — but he hasn't reached any decisions as yet."

The fact that plutonium (and other high-level nuclear wastes) is going to be rumbling cross-country to South Carolina is hardly news. For years, a handful of legislators in Georgia and South Carolina have raised concerns about the shipments, and whether still-shaky federal plans for permanent waste disposal elsewhere in the country can be relied upon.

In Nevada, the DOE's plans for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain continue to be stoutly opposed by that state's populace, who oppose the facility on geologic grounds and also worry about becoming the nation's radioactive dump.

But it was a March decision by the Department of Energy to scrap construction of a new MOX-related storage facility at SRS that led Hodges to demand reassurances that any waste shipped in would, in fact — at some as-yet undetermined point — be shipped out.

But the release of a DOE report — compiled in March, but squelched until it was leaked to the media Aug. 10 — confirms that the MOX program is rapidly exploding in cost, with expense estimates rising 50 percent just since 1999.

That report — which carries the notation "Do not cite or quote" — compares the costs for the two streams of plutonium reprocessing under way: immobilization and reformulation into MOX fuel.

According to DOE's estimates, which are described as subject to further change, the immobilization process — suspending the plutonium in glass logs — will cost about $1.5 billion over the long term, roughly the same cost it was in 1999. By contrast, the MOX program — estimated at about $1.6 billion in 1999 — now has climbed to $2.9 billion; if costs for a MOX-related processing facility are factored in, that climbs to almost $4 billion. The total cost for plutonium disposal: $6.6 billion.

"This is the story behind the story of the governor's hoopla," says Tom Clements of the D.C.-based Nuclear Control Institute. "The cost overruns are so serious, and the money is so big, it could really cause some trouble for this program."

Even the National Security Council has voiced some skepticism about the MOX program, he notes. Their reasons seem to be financial — immobilization is cheaper than MOX — but Clements posits another strategy.

A recent SRS document lists, among ongoing projects, the likelihood that a new factory to build "war reserve certified" plutonium triggers, or "pits," for nuclear weapons may be placed at SRS.

Maybe the uncertainty, he says, is also part of a larger plan. "I think there are people who want to get all this plutonium to the site, and the reason they don't care whether there's a way to process it or immobilize it is so it will be there and ready to go into this new pit plant. I think some people want to keep the material on standby to make weapons."??