Watchdog: Radioactive waste at Savannah River Site continues to trouble Energy Department

·3 min read

Dec. 5—The management and cleanup of millions of gallons of nuclear waste in South Carolina and other states remains a top-tier challenge for the Department of Energy, according to a watchdog report published last month.

Tackling the nationwide issue, namely at the Savannah River Site south of Aiken, the Hanford Site in Washington and Idaho National Laboratory, will require "sustained commitment and leadership" from the department, the Office of Inspector General said.

It also demands reams of money and the success of first-of-its-kind facilities with innumerable moving parts and hazards to combat.

"While progress has been made in establishing its capabilities to treat" radioactive wastes for final disposal, "significant work remains," reads the office's annual report, which highlights management challenges and illustrates advances made.

The waste at the Savannah River Site — once a plutonium production powerhouse, and still the only place where tritium is packaged for the U.S. nuclear arsenal — has been described as the Palmetto State's single largest environmental threat.

"The Department of Energy has the difficult task of cleaning up hazardous and radioactive waste at sites across the country," Nathan Anderson, with the Government Accountability Office, wrote to Congress in June. "The waste was created by nuclear weapons research and production dating back to World War II and the Cold War."

The department's cleanup office, Environmental Management, oversees some 92 million gallons of waste and was responsible for $406 billion in environmental liabilities in fiscal year 2020. That figure is "large," Anderson specified, and is expected to grow.

"In managing cleanup responsibilities related to this liability," he continued, "DOE faces challenges in contract and project management."

Six members of Congress on Dec. 2 asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate "major management challenges at EM that" are hamstringing the department's efficacy.

"GAO first added the U.S. government's environmental liabilities to its High Risk List in 2017, where it remains to this day," wrote the lawmakers, including Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the New Jersey Democrat at the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The key to quickly handling the radioactive waste stored in aging underground tanks at the Savannah River Site, the Salt Waste Process Facility, came online in 2020 — a big win for the department and its contractor, Parsons. Then-Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar helped cut the ribbon at the plant in late September of that year, alongside project officials and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.

"The SWPF is the final piece of the liquid waste program and will allow for completion of the liquid waste mission at SRS," Environmental Management Senior Adviser William "Ike" White said in a statement shared Dec. 2.

In its first year of operations, the plant, nearly two decades in the making, was expected to process 4 million gallons of waste, less than initial estimates. But the Salt Waste Processing Facility is slated to ramp up to 6 million gallons given current tech, the Office of Inspector General noted, as efficiencies are found and routines are optimized.

"Now, the thing that we were trying to do there, that's the capacity of the facility," Savannah River Site deputy manager Thomas Johnson Jr. told S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster's nuclear advisers in October. "But being in its first year of operations, we were wanting to make sure that everything was working according to plan before we were able to step up to that level of processing in the facility."

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