The Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site is gearing up to receive secret overland shipments of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium from Canada, delivered by armed convoy, for reprocessing into commercial nuclear reactor fuel.
And that project looks like just the first in a series of big radioactive sludge imports to South Carolina, a local nuclear watchdog warns.
The U.S. has taken overland shipments of highly enriched uranium from Canada before, but in solid form, as part of the Department of Energy’s efforts to consolidate and reprocess highly enriched uranium that was previously exported for use in foreign allies’ nuclear research reactors.
But the planned delivery of highly enriched uranium in a radioactive liquid solution has American and Canadian environmental activists on high alert.
“As far as I know, this is the first time liquid high-level waste has been transported in North America, therefore it deserves much closer analysis and examination than has been given by the Department of Energy, including the most practical and cheapest method: disposal in Canada,” says Tom Clements, Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth.
Clements adds that his group’s request for an environmental impact study, which would involve public input and consideration of other disposal options, never received a reply from DOE.
Jim Giusti, director of external affairs at the site, said Tuesday that no deliveries have been scheduled yet; however, environmental activists in Canada predict they will take place next spring, after the winter’s ice has melted. The specific shipping dates and routes will be classified.
Clements and Canadian activists argue that the deal between the Savannah River Site and Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario isn’t really about non-proliferation, because Canada is capable of disposing its own HEU with less environmental risk, as it has proven in the past.
“This is a money-making deal parading as a non-proliferation program,” Clements says, adding that the deal is worth $60 million, of which the cash-strapped Savannah River Site hopes to keep a piece.
Clements says the Department of Energy recently altered a regulation allowing it to hold on to a cut of revenue it generates instead of forwarding it all to the national treasury. As for Canada’s incentive, Clements says, the country gets to dump its radioactive problems on South Carolina.
But the Savannah River Site’s Giusti dismissed that charge, saying, “What we’ve done in the past with our HEU program, we have blended down enough high-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium to provide the [Tennessee Valley Authority] to power every home in the state of South Carolina for 10 years. To me, that is turning weapons-grade material into energy that we can use in our homes. We think that supports the non-proliferation policy of the United States.”
The Chalk River deal has been reported in the Canadian press, but has received little local attention outside of a story earlier this year in the Augusta Chronicle.
So, are there risks to the Chalk River delivery?
According to Clements, chances of a cask breach during shipping are slim, but the impact could be huge.
“Unlike a solid material, it could be virtually impossible to clean up, particularly if it got into a waterway,” Clements says, “so that’s why they’re doing these shipments in small amounts, which is basically an acknowledgement that there is a threat present.”
Of more concern, he adds, is the impact that foreign sludge would have on the Savannah River Site’s waste management system and cleanup efforts.
South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton expressed concern last spring upon learning that the Savannah River Site had received insufficient federal funds to meet risk-reduction milestones long agreed upon by the Department of Energy and South Carolina. She aired her dismay in letters to the Department of Energy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, writing that, “The high level radioactive liquid waste stored in aging tanks at the Savannah River Site poses the single largest environmental threat in South Carolina.”
The Chalk River deliveries could only make those risk-reduction milestones more difficult to achieve, as they would add to the waste in the aforementioned tanks.
Asked how the Savannah River Site’s competing missions might impact one another, Giusti said, “I don’t have a good answer for that one,” before adding, “We will work with DHEC and make sure they know what we’re doing and if there is an issue, we’ll talk with them about it. We’ve collaborated with them in the past and we will continue to do that.”
On Monday, a DHEC official agreed to respond to questions from Free Times about the highly enriched uranium shipments by email, but a response was not received before press time.
Clements points to another deal in the offing as further evidence that the Savannah River Site is trying to drum up waste-management business instead of working toward its agreed-upon milestones. According to a report in the trade publication Exchange Monitor, which Giusti confirmed, the German government has given the Savannah River Site a $3 million grant to undertake research and development for the possible receipt and reprocessing of German highly enriched uranium.
But Clements says that Germany is also home to a second batch of U.S.-supplied highly enriched uranium that is much more potent and not being considered for repatriation. “If they were really concerned about proliferation and trying to make that argument, they would look at this other stuff,” Clements says.
“When they’re going afield and using the cover of non-proliferation to bring in more waste, we’re going to oppose it,” Clements says. “We’re going to oppose the German stuff strongly.
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