April 28, 2015

Construction of Saltstone Disposal Unit 6 in Aiken County halfway complete

Saltstone Disposal Unit 6 (SDU 6) in Aiken County, the first mega-volume salt waste disposal unit being built at the Savannah River Site (SRS), has now reached the halfway point in construction, according to a release from a contractor working on the site.

SDU 6 Construction.   Photo courtesy Savannah River Site.

SDU 6 Construction.
Photo courtesy Savannah River Site.

Construction of the 30-million gallon structure, which began in October 2013, reached the halfway point in February. Current plans are for SDU 6 will begin to receive decontaminated salt solution in May 2017, when the current SDUs 3 and 5 reach capacity.

The SDUs play an essential role in the closure of the 45 remaining liquid waste tanks on the Site. About 10 percent of the waste in the tanks is a sludge, which is processed into a glass matrix at the Site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF). The glassified waste is held in stainless-steel canisters and temporarily stored onsite, awaiting a future repository. The remaining 90 percent of the waste in storage tanks is salt waste, which must be retrieved and pretreated for ultimate disposition before the tanks can ultimately be closed.

The salt waste is treated to remove most of the radioactive components. The radioactive components are then mixed with the sludge. The remaining lower-activity treated liquid is then sent to the Saltstone Processing Facility, where it is mixed with cement powders. The resulting grout is then pumped into the SDUs for permanent disposal.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) liquid waste contractor, Savannah River Remediation (SRR), operates the salt processing facilities, disposal units and the other SRS facilities that disposition radioactive liquid waste. SRR’s contract also calls for operationally closing waste tanks.

SRS currently has six smaller SDUs in place, each with a 2.9 million gallon capacity. The new mega-unit, which sits on a two and a half acre site next to the Saltstone Facilities, is more than 10 times the size of the current SDUs. Comparatively, its size would allow a football field to fit inside. SRS will now need only seven of the larger units vs. the previous need for 72 smaller SDUs. This change will result in a significant life-cycle cost savings of potentially $300 million over the life of the program, given economies of scale, layout, design and construction processes.

Jim Folk, DOE-Savannah River Acting Assistant Manager for Waste Disposition, said the SDUs are a substantial part of the process to remove waste from the aging, high-level waste tanks.

“At the end of the waste disposition path, these mega-facilities allow us to give the decontaminated salt solution a safe, final destination,” Folk said in a statement provided by SRR. “Our plans are to continue to leverage this proven technology and build the larger units to stay on top of the waste tank cleanup program.”

The SDUs now receiving the low-level salt waste are doing the job intended – safely keeping the waste away from the environment but include a cost-savings, added Stuart MacVean, SRR President and Project Manager.

SRS is owned by DOE. The SRS Liquid Waste contract is managed by SRR, which is composed of a team of companies led by AECOM with partners Bechtel National, CH2M HILL and Babcock & Wilcox. Critical subcontractors for the contract are AREVA, EnergySolutions and URS Professional Solutions.

Haley opposes reopening Barnwell site to new nuclear waste

Waste stored at the Energy Solutions facility in Barnwell County (Image: DHEC)

Waste stored at the Energy Solutions facility in Barnwell County (Image: DHEC)

Gov. Nikki Haley sought to get in front of rumors that lawmakers are considering a plan to reopen a Barnwell County low-level nuclear waste dump.

The Barnwell Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility holds waste from normally non-radioactive items that became contaminated (such as protective clothing or equipment from power plants). But a 2000 compact limits the site to taking waste from just South Carolina, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Now the contractor which runs the site, Chem-Nuclear Systems subsidiary Energy Solutions, is asking lawmakers to let it take similar waste from other states, according to State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. Hutto, whose district includes the site, said no legislation has yet been introduced.

That didn’t stop the governor from pre-empting the idea. “South Carolina has become a state of quality. A state where we’re really improving everything about it,” Haley told reporters during a press conference Thursday. “And we think that to go and… take in additional waste would be a huge step backwards.”

But Hutto and Energy Solutions officials argue it is a mischaracterization to say the site would be increasing its capacity. Hutto said the plan being discussed would bring in different classes of waste from other sources, but he maintains it would essentially be the same capacity as before.

“There’s no difference in waste that comes from a decommissioned power plant in Pennsylvania versus New Jersey,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “It just happens that Connecticut and New Jersey are in the compact. All the other states are not.”

Energy Solutions has been pitching the plan as a way to bring new jobs to Barnwell County, whose 10 percent unemployment rate is the state’s fifth-highest. The site currently does very little business since it was closed to all but the three compact states.

But Haley said the jobs potential would not change her mind.  “We don’t sell our souls for jobs and money,” she said. “Yes, I’m the ‘jobs governor’ and yes, we want to go in and improve the economy. But you have to look at what cost do you do that.”

The site has come under heavy criticism from environmental groups over measurable amounts of the radioactive isotope tritium that has gotten into groundwater at the site. However, Energy Solutions and state regulators say the contaminations detected at wells on the site have been below the limit for safe drinking water standards.

The Aiken Standard reports Chem-Nuclear’s current proposal would take Class A waste (the lowest level) from the Barnwell site and store it at a facility it owns in Utah. In exchange, the Barnwell site would receive shipments of Class B and C waste, both of which would have to meet more rigorous requirements to ensure stability.

Senate proposal would split South Carolina health and environmental agency

A bill introduced in the Senate this week would split up South Carolina’s environmental and health agency.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The plan by Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, divides the health responsibilities of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) into a new cabinet agency. The new agency will be called the “Department of Behavioral and Public Health” and will consist of DHEC’s health related functions, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse.

DHEC’s environmental division would move under the state Department of Agriculture, an agency now run by Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers.

“This bill does not grow government, nor does it diminish it but it makes government more manageable,” Peeler said in a statement released by his office.

DHEC is currently between leaders. Previous director Catherine Templeton departed the agency in January and the agency’s board (at Gov. Nikki Haley’s request) nominated Eleanor Kitzman to run the agency. She eventually withdrew her name after Democrats and some Republicans questioned her credentials. Kitzman’s previous background was as South Carolina’s, then later Texas insurance director.

The State newspaper notes DHEC’s duties include deciding on environmental permits for chicken and hog farms. The state agency also has some oversight over crop farms. Peeler said he chose to put environmental oversight into the Agriculture Department because that agency already handles similar regulation, including oversight of the shrimp industry.

DHEC nominee withdraws her name

DHEC nominee Eleanor Kitzman answers questions from senators on Thursday (Image: SCETV)

DHEC nominee Eleanor Kitzman answers questions from senators on Thursday (Image: SCETV)

A new search will be needed for South Carolina’s next top environmental official, after the woman the governor initially wanted for the post withdrew her name this weekend.

The State newspaper in Columbia first reported the news Sunday.

The board at the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) had nominated Eleanor Kitzman for the post, but she came under immediate criticism from state senators who questioned Kitzman’s political fundraising for Governor Nikki Haley and her lack of public health or environmental work experience. Kitzman is a former state insurance director and once held a similar job in Texas.

She withdrew her name in a letter to DHEC board chairman Allen Amsler on Sunday. “While it is not my nature or history to retreat when confronted with difficulty, I know from recent personal experience how this scenario plays out,” she wrote. While Kitzman did not explain the “personal experience,” it was likely a reference to her recent job as Insurance Commissioner in Texas, where state lawmakers refused to confirm her in 2013 out of concerns she was too close with the industry.

“My only purpose in becoming Director was to serve the Board, the agency, its employees and stakeholders, and the citizens of South Carolina,” she continued. “None of which will benefit from a protracted confirmation process, regardless of the outcome.”

The DHEC board, whose members are appointed by the governor, will now have to choose a new nominee. The state Senate must then confirm that choice.

Kitzman told a Senate hearing last week that Gov. Nikki Haley had approached her about getting involved in state government again. Haley then recommended her to the board. She was the only candidate ever considered by the board, a departure from its usual practice.

Democrats opposed to the choice had warned they did not expect Kitzman to have enough votes to receive the Senate’s approval.

SC Big Story: Gov’s DHEC choice faces tough questions on experience, history

DHEC nominee Eleanor Kitzman answers questions from senators on Thursday (Image: SCETV)

DHEC nominee Eleanor Kitzman answers questions from senators on Thursday (Image: SCETV)

A roundup of what’s making news in South Carolina state government.

The woman Governor Nikki Haley wants to lead South Carolina’s public health and environmental agency faced hard questioning from state senators on Thursday.

The Senate Medical Affairs Committee held the first of what members say will be several hearings before they decide to advance the nomination of Eleanor Kitzman as the next director at the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).

The questioning came largely from Democrats who said they were concerned about Kitzman’s lack of experience in the areas she would oversee at DHEC. They also criticized her close political ties to Haley, including campaign donations and fundraisers for the governor.

Kitzman, a former state insurance director under Gov. Mark Sanford, was the only candidate interviewed by the DHEC board after the departure of her predecessor Catherine Templeton. The board (which is appointed by the governor) picked Kitzman just days after Templeton announced she was leaving.

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