Our community should be looking for ways to have nuclear material exit the Savannah River Site, not a path to stockpile more. That’s why the SRS Citizens Advisory Board made the right call by telling the U.S. Department of Energy that a new shipment of more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium should not be stored in our backyard.
Most of that shipment, which is coming from Japan, is intended for the WIPP – or Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – in Carslbad, N.M., but that plant has been shut down since Feb. 14. The facility was shut down when workers were exposed to radiation.
It’s easy to understand the concerns expressed by board members Bill Calhoun and Rose Hayes about the intentions of the federal government. Calhoun said he fears that if the New Mexico plant is not revived, and the plutonium comes to SRS, it could stay for an extended time. It’s a story we’ve heard before – just look at Yucca Mountain. Tons of radioactive waste was supposed to go to the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, but the Obama administration blocked those plans and shuttered the plant, which is located about 90 miles from Las Vegas.
The long-term plan, up until 2009, was to consolidate waste at Yucca Mountain, but political pressures prompted the president to scrap the project by cutting funding for it.
Now, questions remain as to where all that nuclear material can go. The mission of SRS has shifted to cleaning up waste, not becoming a dumping site for nuclear material.
One of the goals of President Obama has been to lock down plutonium and uranium around the world to improve international peace and security. That’s a noble initiative, but it shouldn’t lead to South Carolina becoming the ultimate destination for nuclear waste.
Yes, there is an economic benefit to being the storage center for such material, but that doesn’t negate the clear health and safety risks.
The mixed oxide fuel – or MOX – facility at SRS was supposed to be part of the country’s solution for disposing of such waste by processing it into fuel that could power facilities. But that plan was also scrapped by Obama after his 2015 budget put the project on “cold stand-by,” essentially abandoning it.
With the lack of a permanent federal repository for such waste – and the federal government still searching for a solution to clean up or reuse nuclear material – it seems to put South Carolina, especially Aiken County, at a dangerous crossroads.
The site needs a pertinent mission to remain a viable and sustainable operation, but becoming the nation’s central, permanent waste dump should be an idea that’s left off the table.