There has been an awful lot of heat, but little light, accompanying the “tempest in a tea pot” atmosphere surrounding the proposal to accept German experimental reactor fuel at the Savannah River Site. Politicians are pounding chests, demanding answers to questions that cannot be answered until ongoing research and development at the Savannah River National Laboratory, or SRNL, is completed.
Familiar anti-nuclear, anti-SRS voices are quoted and given credence in our local press without questioning the basis for their protests. Characterizations of SRS being a “dump” for nuclear waste have been incorporated in news articles with the sole intent to sensationalize the issue.
I worked at SRS for 16 years. I didn’t work in a “dump.” I worked at a site that was a National Environmental Research Park with incredibly unique and healthy flora and fauna. I worked at a site that was the best characterized 310 square miles on earth. I worked at a site with a safety record that is the envy of every industry on earth.
I worked at a well-engineered and monitored site. These are not characteristics of a “dump.” Rather, “dump” is what we do with fossil fuel waste in our air, our water and our soil. A student in a class I was addressing answered the question of how we deal with fossil fuel waste by replying, “We breathe it, we drink it and we eat it.” This contrasts starkly with the extensive precautions to isolate nuclear waste from humans and the environment.
So, what about the German fuel? If all you know is what you read in the newspapers, then you would think Germany is trying to unload a nuclear waste problem on the SRS. A sober look at the facts might help us understand that this is, in its simplest form, a continuation of a crucial mission at SRS.
In fact, the SRS has been central to this country’s nonproliferation efforts since the early days of the Atoms for Peace program. This program was instituted to promote peaceful uses of atomic energy and several international agreements followed the original one proposed by President Eisenhower. These agreements provided for highly enriched uranium to be supplied to tens of countries all around the world for use in their research and experimental reactors. Both Russia and the U.S. provided this material ,and each ultimately agreed to take the material back when the host country was finished with it.
Following the Cold War, we not only reemphasized the repatriation of U.S. origin highly enriched uranium, but we even helped finance the repatriation of Russian highly enriched uranium to Russia. In all, more than 600 such reactors around the world were using these fuels, although many of them have now been decommissioned.
The International Atomic Energy Agency used to maintain a website depicting the location and status of all of these reactors, but the practice was discontinued after 9/11 as a security measure.
Therein lays the compelling reason for the proposed German fuel to be repatriated under these agreements. Some argue that there may be technicalities that should exclude the fuel from these agreements, but there is no doubt that the spirit of the agreements includes this fuel. So, why is there such a stir about this fuel? Well, it is a unique fuel requiring special processing to handle it. The process is still under development by SRNL. Because the process is different from what has typically been done with fuels containing highly enriched uranium, the Department of Energy called for an environmental assessment and a public meeting to understand what potential impacts the public wanted evaluated in the EA. That process will run its course over the next several months before the DOE even decides to accept the fuel.
This role of repatriating U.S. origin highly enriched uranium from other countries has been ongoing for decades at SRS as the principal tool that the U.S. has to combat proliferation of weapons-capable highly enriched uranium and make the world a safer place.
The German fuel is an even better story because SRNL has been paid by the German government to develop this process, and Germany will pay for the actual processing.
Instead of wringing our hands over this fuel, we should be thankful that our country has the assets at SRS and SRNL to allow safe and secure shipment to the SRS for safe processing rather than having it come here as part of a terrorist device.
Clint Wolfe is the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, and formerly chaired the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy’s Plutonium Focus Area.