Nuke Waste Destined to Remain


Aiken Standard: ‘I’m not confident at all’: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham casts real doubt on Energy Department

GREENVILLE — South Carolina’s senior senator, who often stumps for the Savannah River Site, has little faith in the U.S. Department of Energy’s abilities going forward.

“No, I’m not confident the DOE can do almost anything,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday during a question-and-answer session with reporters. “I’m not confident at all.”

That lack of trust casts a dark shadow over the prospective expansion of plutonium pit production, an enduring weapons mission of which SRS is an integral part, according to a joint recommendation from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense.

“The pit production mission, we’ll see how real that is,” the Republican senator said Monday.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores. The NNSA – a semiautonomous DOE agency – and the DOD want to produce 50 pits a year at SRS and another 30 a year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Graham’s expressed reservations on Monday echo remarks made by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., late last year.

At the time – while quizzing the president’s pick for the NNSA’s second-in-command spot – Scott said he was “skeptical” of pit production buildout at SRS. Scott said he was leery because of the DOE’s “inconsistent track record with major projects.”

Getting pit production going at the Site – 80 pits a year are needed by 2030, per the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review – involves a serious rework of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a Graham-favored venture designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear fuel.

Graham has previously explained the MOX mission as turning swords into plowshares.

The NNSA terminated MOX on Oct. 10, 2018, five months after U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry told congressional defense committees the project would be axed.

Graham still considers the termination a major blunder: “By abandoning MOX when it’s 70 percent complete makes no sense to me,” he said Monday. Three months ago, the senior senator called MOX cancellation a “colossal mistake.”

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the SRS management and operations contractor, was recently tapped to lead initial SRS pit production efforts: transitioning MOX and doing conceptual design work for the “Savannah River Pit Production Plant,” among other things, a SRNS spokesperson has told the Aiken Standard.

The DOE Office of Environmental Management is the SRS landlord.

Graham was in Greenville on Monday to speak at the Poinsett Club.

South Carolina did its part during the Cold War. The Savannah River Site produced plutonium and tritium for nuclear weapons.

In the decades since, there have been plans to effectively and permanently deal with the radioactive waste from the SRS processes. South Carolina was never supposed to be a permanent home.

It’s bad enough that the plan to permanently store high-level waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been on hold for years with no sign that will change, and that the MOX project that gave South Carolina some hope of having waste reprocessed has been scrapped by the federal government, but now, not surprisingly, even the smallest of actions to make Nevada fulfill its nuclear mission is the subject of legal and political battles.

The U.S. Department of Energy disclosed this past week that it already has shipped one-half metric ton of weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to a nuclear security site in Nevada.

The Justice Department notified a federal judge in Reno the government had already trucked the radioactive material to the site 70 miles north of Las Vegas when Nevada filed a request for an injunction to block the move in November.

According to Associated Press reporting, department lawyers said in a nine-page filing that the previously classified information about the shipment from South Carolina can be disclosed now because enough time has passed to protect national security.

Nevada’s governor and congressional delegation went ballistic upon learning the news.

Gov. Steve Sisolak said he’s “beyond outraged by this completely unacceptable deception.” He said he’s working with Nevada’s congressional delegation to fight back against the U.S. government’s “reckless disregard” for the safety of Nevadans.

Thankfully, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du rejected Nevada’s request to halt the Energy Department’s plans announced in August to ship a full metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina — where a federal judge previously issued an order that the plutonium be removed from SRS by January 2020.

Nevada argues the DOE has failed to adequately study the potential dangers of moving the material to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes, and that the state’s lands and groundwater may already be contaminated with radioactive materials.

The Energy Department wants to temporarily store the material at the Nevada site and the government’s Pantex Plant in Texas, two facilities that already handle and process plutonium. The department says it would be sent by 2027 to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico or another unnamed facility.

As reported by AP, Du wrote: “Nevada’s claim of irreparable harm to Nevada’s lands, environment and by extension Nevada’s citizens, is merely a theoretical possibility at this juncture as Nevada provides no evidence from which this court may infer a likelihood of any concrete or impending harm.”

The judge noted that the government has transported nuclear materials to the Nevada site before and historically uses plutonium in testing operations there.

“Thus, it is highly hypothetical that shipments of additional plutonium to NNSS and staging there would lead to imminent immediate harm,” Du wrote.

Sadly, it is clear that South Carolina will be home indefinitely to a lot of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste. At every turn, there are efforts to block moving it elsewhere. As much as the latest action by the Energy Department in sending some waste to Nevada should be viewed as progress, don’t count on it continuing.

South Carolina’s faith in the federal government to follow through on plans for permanent storage of high-level nuclear waste was misplaced, and there is little realistic hope of our state’s delegation in Washington mustering enough support to significantly change things in the foreseeable future.

Related: The Times and Democrat: (Editorial) Nuke waste destined to remain

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