The U.S. Department of Energy is making changes to a plan to reuse two nuclear waste tanks at the Savannah River Site.

“We have not dropped plans for those tanks, but have developed an alternative plan for Fiscal Year 2014,” said DOE representative Jim Giusti.

DOE recently requested permission to reuse the emptied high-level waste Tanks 4 and 7. The tanks were emptied as part of an ongoing effort to clean up waste at SRS. DOE also recently submitted budget requests to Congress that concentrate funding on nuclear waste sites in other parts of the country, making it virtually impossible for SRS to meet the milestones agreed to with the state, according to the state health department.

“DOE made a wise decision. We can't afford to reverse course and reuse tanks that SRS employees worked hard to responsibly empty. Today, DOE signaled that it understands South Carolina will hold it to its commitments,” said health department Director Catherine Templeton. “However, we remain concerned that insufficient funding will lead to other missed commitments and agreed-upon milestones. SRS has already been forced to lay off 465 employees.”

In response to DOE's budget request and indications it would reuse the tanks, Templeton warned in an Aug. 28 letter that the department would not permit DOE to jeopardize cleanup efforts at SRS.

According to Templeton's letter, the health department has the right to fine DOE more than $150 million if milestones aren't met. Among these milestones is the closure of 20 liquid waste tanks by 2022.

“DOE is playing a shell game with the single greatest environmental threat to our state” said Templeton. “Redirecting waste from one set of tanks to another – and resources from one site to another – does nothing to get DOE on track for upcoming milestones. We need real solutions.”

Savannah River Remediation, the Site's liquid waste contractor, is currently closing liquid waste Tanks 5 and 6 at SRS, a process that began last month. Despite budget cuts and layoffs, DOE is still moving forward with the closings.

“We have not halted the grouting of the tanks,” DOE stated.

Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard news team.