South Carolinas Savannah River Site is emerging as a potential storage depot for used fuel from the nations nuclear power plants, stirring old fears the state could become a radioactive dumping ground.
Choosing the Cold War-era bomb plant could put Charlotte, the crossroads of two north-south interstate highways, along a corridor for shipments of the highly radioactive waste from power plants to the north.
With no permanent burial site for spent commercial fuel on the horizon, the government has proposed finding one or more interim storage sites. Spent fuel is now kept at the nuclear plants where it was used.
A decision is likely to be years away. It will rest largely on the willingness of communities like the Savannah River region around Aiken, S.C., to accept more nuclear waste without a clear exit time.
But wheels are turning that could lead to SRS.
In December, a Charlotte-based official of the French nuclear company Areva pitched a proposal to the S.C. Governors Nuclear Advisory Council. The plan, while not identifying SRS as a target, called for interim used-fuel storage, research and recycling facilities that could create thousands of jobs.
This month, an SRS economic development group will release a $200,000 study of fuel disposal options.
The way I see it, if the community wants it, theyve got it, said Clint Wolfe, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, an Aiken group that promotes new missions for SRS.
For anybody who looks at the assets around the country and looks at the places that could be an interim storage site, SRS is the place. SRS already stores used nuclear fuel, although none from commercial reactors. Its H Canyon nuclear-materials reprocessing plant is unique in the nation and could be reconfigured for new uses. The site has already expressed research interest in nuclear fuels recycling. And its nearly 12,000 workers have technical skills and deep experience with nuclear materials.
A fresh infusion of nuclear waste would translate into more jobs and extended life for the 60-year-old site. But the issue also reopens past wounds about South Carolinas toxic legacy.
The ever-present fear is that, like a party guest who refuses to go home, the waste that comes in would never leave.
The big concern is what is meant by the term interim, said Republican state Sen. Tom Young, who represents Aiken County. Weve asked that repeatedly and havent gotten a definitive answer.
The Department of Energys projects at SRS have often stumbled. High-level radioactive waste immobilized in glass at the site still hasnt been delivered to a burial site in New Mexico. A new plant under construction at the site to blend surplus weapons plutonium into commercial nuclear fuel faces large cost overruns.
A few miles to the Southeast is the 42-year-old Barnwell disposal site for low-level nuclear waste. One of only three such sites in the nation, it lends credence to South Carolinas reputation as a dumping ground.
Theres a perception we fight in South Carolina that we are the nations paid toilet you pay the money and we take the waste, said Ann Timberlake, executive director of Conservation Voters of South Carolina, which opposes importing more nuclear waste.
Observers say several states are competing to become the interim storage site.
The twist about South Carolina that I dont think other states appreciate is that we are well aware that (the Department of Energy) has a very hard time executing their plans, said Karen Patterson, who chairs the Governors Nuclear Advisory Council.
Patterson suspects the Department of Energy will offer SRS as a temporary storage site because it already hosts so much nuclear waste. But she doesnt predict anything to happen soon.
Congress would first have to come up with the money for a storage site and change a federal law that says a permanent repository has to be licensed before an interim site could open.
I think it will be many years, four or five years, before this is resolved, she said.
A Department of Energy report released in January set a goal of opening by 2021 a pilot interim-storage site to take the 3,000 tons of used fuel from 11 closed nuclear reactors. A larger site, to open in 2025, would store 22,000 tons or more of fuel from operating plants.
We havent heard anything that says were going to be the place, said SRS spokesman Bill Taylor. This site and other sites have been mentioned as potential sites.
Utilities say the commercial fuel is safe where it is, stored in pools or steel casks at nuclear plants. But they would prefer the government take responsibility for it as promised decades ago.
We support a centralized interim storage facility for plants that have shut down, and to ultimately relieve some of the expense and responsibility of storing at those sites, said Duke Energy spokesman Tim Pettit. Were not really in the business of prescribing where that is sited.
Tom Clements, an advocate in Columbia with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, says moving the fuel from nuclear plants to SRS isnt necessary and would expose workers to radiation risks.
If there were interim storage from operating reactor sites, there would be a massive amount of transfers of highly radioactive waste fuel, Clements said. A reprocessing plant would have to be fed by spent fuel. That would guarantee that spent fuel would be moving through North Carolina on a consistent basis.
New missions would also translate into jobs at SRS, which is already one of South Carolinas top employers with an economic impact of $2.6 billion a year.
As the site winds down and the cleanup process continues, those workers will continue to dwindle, said Rick McLeod, executive director of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, an economic development agency. This may help backfill some of those jobs that you might lose.
The group plans to release results this month of a $200,000 study on fuel disposal at SRS. The study will be something for the folks to start thinking about, McLeod said, with a more detailed plan to come later.
Aiken resident Connie Darden-Young has heard enough.
Her father was an SRS physicist during the Cold War, and she remembers the governments promises to clean up the site. Word that SRS could take in more waste prompted Darden-Young and her husband, musician Jesse Colin Young, to form Dont Waste Aiken to fight more waste imports.
Somehow it seems when it has anything to do with waste, our country pretends like its not there, she said.
The French-owned nuclear company Areva, which has offices in Charlotte, believes interim storage of nuclear fuel could be combined with fuel recycling.
The company has long experience in France with recycling, in which enriched uranium is removed from spent fuel for reuse. It plans to apply for a license for a U.S. recycling plant in 2019 but for now carefully avoids proposing SRS or any specific location.
We have so much used nuclear fuel and we have so many options of what to do with it, said Paul Murray, the Charlotte-based technology director for strategic projects at Areva Federal Services.
Murray appeared before the S.C. Governors Nuclear Advisory Council in December, describing a tiered approach to dealing with used fuel.
Apart from storing the fuel, a research center could assess the long-term safety of the casks that often house it. Another facility could reduce the size of fuel packaging. And a recycling plant, he said, could deal with the 25,000 tons of spent fuel stored in the Southeast.
The plan has economic-development appeal, SRS observers say.
But recycling used fuel is likely to run into opposition. Recycling separates not only uranium that can be reused in reactors but also plutonium, a potential bomb material. The United States has banned recycling since the late 1970s because terrorists and other enemies might obtain it.
At the end of the day, its going to come down to a business case, to be honest, Murray said. Ultimately, somebody is going to have to pay for this. Is it cheaper to send it to interim storage, repackage it and then send it to a geological repository? Or cheaper to send it to a recycling plant and then dispose of the waste?