Legal Settlement Requires Safer Disposal of Radioactive Waste and Government Transparency

Early Warning System Will Alert Operators in Case of Leak, and Amount of Radioactivity Left in South Carolina Can Be Publicly Tracked.
WASHINGTON (August 8, 2007) – A compromise settlement between environmentalists and the
U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) over a radioactive waste disposal permit granted by the South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control (DHEC) will require new protections that could help prevent radioactive waste from contaminating the groundwater that connects with tributaries of the Savannah River that runs the Georgia-South Carolina border. This settlement concerns “reclassified” high-level radioactive waste that was the result of nuclear weapons production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
“This agreement moves the ball forward, but unfortunately it’s still unclear whether the people of South Carolina or the environment will be protected over the long term,” Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said. Fettus, working closely with Jimmy Chandler of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, represented NRDC’s members in South Carolina, as well as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Nuclear Watch South, the Carolina Peace and Resource Center, and Environmentalists, Inc. Mr. Chandler and Mr. Robert Guild represented the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club. The environmental groups challenged the permit in February, 2007.
Under the compromise agreement, the radioactive waste will be disposed of in a substantially improved and safer facility than the original design for the site under the DHEC permit. The primary disposal site for much of the waste is being redesigned, liners will be placed beneath the waste disposal cells to protect the groundwater, and an early leak detection system will be installed. Importantly, DOE will be required under the settlement to launch a publicly accessible website that details the radioactive and chemical composition of the dangerous waste that will be disposed of onsite. Under this agreement, DOE -- with the support of the state agency, DHEC -- will be disposing of the waste from two tanks, amounting to approximately 1 million to 2.3 million curies of radioactivity at the site at the Savannah River nuclear power plant’s Saltstone Disposal Facility (For purposes of comparison, 2.3 million curies is approximately one-third of the amount of radioactivity in the commercial low-level nuclear waste facility located in Barnwell, South Carolina, a facility that has operated and received waste for decades.)
DOE will now proceed with what the environmental groups see as an unnecessary, premature, and unfortunate disposal plan that abandons far too much radioactivity in South Carolina. While the environmental groups obtained a number of improvements and significant transparencies, the groups were ultimately limited by the current state of the law and DHEC’s approval of DOE’s actions. The plan for the great majority of the radioactive mess at the Savannah River Site remains to be addressed and that matter still awaits resolution. Environmental groups will continue to fight to ensure that cleanup of this radioactive waste is fully protective of South Carolina.