A contractor working at the Savannah River Site says it has finished cleaning up radioactive metals from a stream in Barnwell and Allendale counties.
Savannah River Nuclear Solutions officials say they have spent the past four months removing over 5 million pounds of contaminated soil from the Lower Three Runs Creek. Lower Three Runs flows into the Savannah River near the town of Snelling. The Department of Energy had been concerned about unsafe levels of cesium in the creek’s floodplain.
Cesium-137 is a mildly toxic metal that is a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors. “It’s not what you’d consider highly toxic,” said Chris Bergren, SRNS’s Area Completion Projects manager, “But it’s not something that you want to go immerse yourself in.”
The Savannah River Site (SRS) is a former nuclear weapons facility. The Energy Department believes cesium-137 was in cooling water released from one of the site’s reactors into the Par Pond reservoir located upstream of the creek. Those discharges occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, according to SRNS spokesman D.T. Townsend.
The 20-mile-long creek is situated on a small strip of land owned by the Energy Department. The area is closed to the public, although it borders private land often used for hunting. “This stream is still in relatively close proximity to the public,” Bergren said. “One of the things we wanted to do was remove some ‘hot spots,’ which had more concentrated levels of cesium than others.”
Fishing and swimming are not allowed in the stream, even though the level of contaminants is below federal standards, according to Environmental Protection Agency Lead Project Manager Robert Pope. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control was also involved in the cleanup effort.
The $10 million project was paid for with Recovery Act funds left over from other cleanup operations at SRS. The entire project took less than a year to plan and complete, according to project manager Ron Socha. It had to be finished by September in order to be eligible for the funds, Bergen said.
Socha said crews tried to minimize the impact on the protected wetlands. “It was a very difficult task getting in and out of the area,” he told South Carolina Radio Network, “(The crews) used skid steers and small equipment.”
He said more than 120 people rode into the site on ATVs, dug up the soil with the steers, and placed the dirt into more than 2,100 trash bags to carry back out.
“It was a lot of effort by a lot of people,” Socha said.