Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher said on Monday, September 19, 2011, that high-level nuclear waste once destined for the Yucca Mountain repository will be sent, instead, to the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site.
The decision to use the Savannah River Site in South Carolina as a permanent storage facility is controversial. It is the most radioactive site in the United States. Aiken County, in which part of the site is located, sued the Department of Energy unsuccessfully when the Obama Administration decided not to use the multi-billion-dollar Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada for high-level nuclear waste storage that was supposed to be removed from SRS.
Currently, millions of gallons of high-level nuclear waste are stored in 49 leaking tanks on the site as well as huge amounts of surplus plutonium. Deadly chemicals and radiation will contaminate the facility for thousands of years. “The Bomb Plant,” as locals refer to the site, is uniquely unsuitable for a permanent nuclear waste repository, according to leading geologists. It sits on an earthquake fault and one of the most important aquifers in the South. The sandy soil and swampy conditions make it highly vulnerable to waste seepage.
The Obama Administration has spent more than $1 billion in Stimulus Act funds cleaning up legacy Cold War nuclear and chemical waste at the site. Despite this effort, there is now more radioactive waste at SRS than when the clean-up started. The idea of bringing nuclear reactor waste and surplus weapons plutonium from around the world to SRS only exacerbates already chronic problems.
The 312 square mile site near Aiken, South Carolina, was once the home of five reactors that churned out nuclear materials for H-bombs. The last reactor at SRS had to be shuttered for safety reasons during the Reagan Administration. Tritium, which is needed for nuclear weapons, is produced by Tennessee Valley Authority reactors and processed into gas for nuclear weapons at SRS.
Today, DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is paying the French-government-owned-company AREVA to supervise the construction of a new, multi-billion dollar facility to convert excess weapons plutonium into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in civilian nuclear power reactors. (AREVA provided a less potent MOX fuel to Fukushima Daiichi Reactor Number Three last September that suffered a hydrogen explosion after the March earthquake and tsunami.)
NNSA’s MOX plant is behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. It does not have any paying customers for its fuel if it is ever made. It will create its own new waste stream. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not licensed the plant, and SRS and DOE management are late reporting on the cost overruns.
COMPREHENSIVE TEST BAN TREATY
Speaking to the Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) annual Washington meeting, Under Secretary Tauscher said during a question and answer session that she had seen an early draft of the National Academy of Sciences report that confirms testing nuclear weapons is not necessary to maintain the quality of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. She urged support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, explaining that the United States already complies with the treaty and ratification would give the country more authority to act against nations who did not abide by its provisions. Some critics of the treaty oppose it because they do not want to rely solely on computer modeling to verify the reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI NUCLEAR DISASTER
In perhaps what makes all of these discussions existent, when asked about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster last March in Japan, Secretary Tauscher said no one knows when or even if residents will be able to return to that area. She assured the audience the U.S. State Department is monitoring the situation and assisting whenever possible.