For decades, state leaders have bemoaned the federal government's willingness to leave tons of radioactive waste festering at Savannah River Site, while transporting even more waste tonnage there for storage or, supposedly, reprocessing. Finally, one state official is prepared to take action.
No, not lie down in front of the trucks hauling waste into the state, as Gov. Jim Hodges once famously pledged.
Catherine Templeton, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, is threatening to fine the federal Department of Energy for failing to meet its own waste time lines.
Mrs. Templeton, a lawyer, has threatened to invoke penalties totaling $154 million for the DOE's lapses in attention at SRS, where the waste has been piling up since the early 1950s.
Mrs. Templeton is focusing on underground tanks that hold millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste. Liquid waste is being stabilized in glass logs which are then encased for storage in a permanent repository. As the tanks are emptied, they are filled with cement to forestall further contamination problems.
But the work continues ever so slowly. The original timetable for completion of the cleanup was 2023. The latest estimate is sometime in the 2040s.
"I don't know what the tanks' design life was intended to be, but it's not for infinity," Mrs. Templeton said in an interview with The New York Times. Meanwhile more buildings are under construction to house the "glassified" waste. That's because the long-term disposal program at Yucca Mountain, Nev., was derailed by the administration, with the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who didn't like the idea of storing the material in his state, never mind how remote the site.
There are additional waste issues at SRS, as South Carolina awaits completion of a plant that will enable plutonium to be neutralized for weapons purposes, under the terms of a U.S.-Russia disarmament pact. Unfortunately, the MOX plant hasn't been given the funding it needs. Consequently, its completion has periodically been called into question, as has DOE's cleanup of waste tanks at the former weapons facility.
Even if the cleanup proceeds, it is evident that the Savannah River Site is being turned into a de facto long-term disposal site for nuclear waste - a task it was not designed to accommodate. So far this year, South Carolina and Aiken County have had success in their battle to get the federal government to reassume its statutory responsibilities for nuclear waste management.
In August, a federal appeals court ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to revive its long-term storage plan for Defense and commercial reactor waste, as mandated by Congress.
Mrs. Templeton's effort to force the issue on the regulatory side could encourage some additional response from Washington about its waste management responsibilities. At the least, it lets the DOE know that South Carolina's watchdogs are on the case. One day, maybe the state will be able to say the same about the federal government. It shouldn't take another 30-plus years to finish the cleanup at SRS.