Supporters lament limit on nuclear waste

A page will turn Tuesday in Barnwell County, opening what could be a new chapter in South Carolina's decades-long relationship with nuclear waste.

On July 1, after nearly four decades, the nuclear waste disposal facility in Barnwell County will no longer accept waste from across the country.

The Barnwell facility was the only one of its kind. Its closure leaves many states scrambling for a way to dispose of their low-level radioactive waste.

It also leaves Barnwell scrambling to make its financial ends meet, while some residents hope that high energy prices could revive nuclear energy – and the jobs it means to them.

The terms of a deal struck in 2000 – and vigorously fought against by political leaders in Barnwell ever since – will restrict use of the facility to South Carolina, New Jersey and Connecticut after Tuesday.

Environmentalists hail the agreement, saying it strikes a blow against the state's reputation as the nation's nuclear dumping ground.

But political leaders in the county, happy to have the jobs and revenue generated by the facility, think it's a cruel blow, delivered to a county that takes pride in its ability to safely handle nuclear waste.

“The image that's been put out there by the media ... y'all are trying to convince people that Barnwell County glows in the dark,” said Barnwell County Councilman Keith Sloan, a backer of the facility. “The waste being accepted out there is relatively innocuous. It can be handled safely.”

Jim Latham, vice president of operations at the plant, owned by Utah-based Energy Solutions, did not hide his exasperation with yet another reporter.

But Latham spoke with pride about the work being done to dispose of the nation's low-level nuclear waste.

The facility is not intimidating. No one walks around in hazmat suits. Mounds of grass-covered acreage betray nothing of what lies below.

The waste comes in by truck, strapped to a flatbed in huge metal casks. Deep trenches are dug in the red clay soil for the casks, which then are topped with several layers of dirt and other substances designed to keep moisture out.

In 2006, some 40,000 cubic feet of waste was disposed of at the facility, Latham said. Next year, the figure is expected to drop to about 13,000 cubic feet, then reach 9,000 in later years.

All of that means fewer jobs at the plant, which paid well above many in Barnwell County, Latham said.

High gas and oil prices have some officials rediscovering nuclear power. U.S. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, has called for dozens of new nuclear power plants, which would mean more waste.

Sloan and Barnwell are ready.

“If there is a renaissance in the nuclear industry, and I believe there has to be,” Sloan said, “we believe Barnwell County will be positioned to play a part in that.”