Proposal for nuke waste site questioned

On the South Carolina side of the Savannah River sits what's called the Savannah River Site, one of the world's largest deposits of plutonium and other high-level nuclear waste, much of it left over from the Cold War. In all, 37 million gallons of radioactive sludge are stored there.

Finding a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste is one of the biggest problems nuclear scientists grapple with; it remains radioactive for thousands and thousands of years.

Earlier this month, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., stuck an amendment on a large defense bill that would allow the U.S. Department of Energy to get rid of waste at the Savannah River Site. There are 51 tanks at the site, each capable of holding 1 million gallons of waste. Graham wants to allow the DOE to pump out as much of the radioactive sludge as possible for treatment and storage, and then cover the rest with grout, a mixture of sand, gravel and cement.

But this idea isn't as quick and painless as it seems.

The DOE won't be able to suck out all of the waste because the gunk at the bottom is thicker than the muck at the top. The bottom of the barrel is also a lot more radioactive, holding two-thirds of the entire tank's radiation.

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are up in arms over Graham's action for two reasons. The first is that a National Academy of Sciences report published in 2000 raised questions about whether grouting could cause corrosion of the metal in the storage tanks and possibly result in leaks.

The second reason is that the high temperature of radioactive sludge (194 degrees) could cause the grout to crack, according to a 1992 DOE study that also questioned the grouting technique.

The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the bill to which Graham's amendment was attached in a closed-door session May 7. The full Senate is expected to take up the bill this week. If it passes, the bill will be sent to a conference committee before reaching the president's desk.

"If this amendment sticks, Georgia is going to be seriously in trouble," says Sara Barczak, safe energy director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"As someone living downstream of the plant in Savannah, I am highly concerned about what these heinous actions are going to result in over the long-term."

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