South Carolina environmental regulators have reached an agreement that they hope will accelerate the cleanup of 36 million gallons of radioactive material from a former nuclear warheads site near Aiken.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) announced Tuesday that it reached the agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy to expedite cleanup and remediation efforts at the DOE’s Savannah River Site. The agreement requires DOE and its contractors to treat 36 million gallons of the High Level liquid waste (HLW) by 2022.
The faster treatment is possible after a new Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF) was finished in June following years of delays. It will be operational by next month and allow site contractors to speed up their treatment of the former waste. Contractors are currently using smaller facilities than the SWPF.
“This agreement underscores our continued commitment to furthering the Department of Energy’s environmental cleanup mission at Savannah River Site and reaffirms our good working relationship with South Carolina,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement. “We look forward to our ongoing collaborative work with South Carolina to identify and execute beneficial near-term and long-term environmental solutions in the state, advance new environmental science and technology at the Savannah River National Laboratory, and carry-out critical nuclear security missions.”
The agreement is separate from ongoing legal action between South Carolina and the Energy Department over 34 metric tons of plutonium stored at SRS. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and other state officials have sued DOE over a much-delayed facility under construction at SRS that would have reprocessed the plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors. The Obama Administration has sought to redirect funding for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility as delays and budget overruns continue, but South Carolina claims the agency promised the state it would remove the plutonium by 2015.
“We are pleased DOE has agreed to accelerate treatment of liquid waste at SRS, but the federal government’s track record with other promises they have made isn’t a good one,” Haley’s spokeswoman Chaney Adams said in a statement. “So we will closely monitor DOE’s compliance with their end of the bargain.”
The Energy Department also agreed to invest about $200 million on “innovative technologies” to help clean up waste tanks on the site, which manufactured nuclear warheads during the Cold War. Some of those tanks have recorded small leaks in recent years, according to Energy Department records.
Both technologies increase the closure rate of the aging waste tanks at SRS, some of which have documented leak sites. Of the 51 original tanks, 43 remain open.
“DHEC’s responsibility is to protect the environment and public health in South Carolina, and this agreement furthers our goal of maximized waste treatment on a timely schedule to lower the risk for the state,” DHEC Director Catherine Heigel said.