It’s encouraging that the federal government finally managed to sneak a second half a metric ton of deadly plutonium out of South Carolina.
It’s not encouraging that it took a court order to force the Energy Department to comply with a federal law that required it to remove that first metric ton by 2016.
Even less encouraging: There are about 11 more metric tons of the stuff stored at the Savannah River Site near Aiken. In a 65-year-old building not intended for long-term storage that the federal government says has a “degraded” roof and other problems that leave its condition “poor.” And water-supply problems that could make it impossible to stop a fire if one started. Located just 5 miles from the Savannah River, which supplies drinking water to 1.4 million people.
A dozen milligrams of plutonium — which weigh about a tenth as much as a single grain of sand — are lethal. And with an estimated 24,000 years for plutonium to lose just half of its radioactivity, it’s possible that human beings will cease to exist long before the plutonium ceases to be a danger.
About one month after South Carolina disclosed that settlement negotiations with the federal government had collapsed, the state is again urgi…
Some might argue that South Carolina is just getting what it asked for. After all, our economy benefited enormously for the decades that the Savannah River Site generated much of the material that powered our nation’s nuclear deterrence. More recently, state officials lobbied hard to get the jobs that would accompany a plan to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants, in a process called mixed oxide fuel fabrication, or MOX; that’s why the plutonium was shipped here in 2002.
The problem is that above-ground buildings are not ideal for storing highly radioactive materials, and the Savannah River Site is an enormously dangerous place to store them, with the Savannah River so nearby.
Attorney General Alan Wilson is to be commended for working to make the federal government live up to its obligations and start getting the plutonium out of the state. He needs to continue to pursue his court case to force the Energy Department to pay the $200 million it owes us for not meeting the 2016 deadline. Although the money is nowhere near as important as getting the plutonium into a more stable environment, Congress made a promise to our state, and the Energy Department needs to keep that promise.
South Carolina shouldn’t suffer because the federal government hasn't kept its promise to move a vast stockpile of plutonium out of the state.
Mr. Wilson also needs to search for legal options, just as our members of Congress search for political options, to clear up some of the immediate safety problems at the site, by either fortifying the existing building or constructing a more substantial building for housing the surplus plutonium.
And when 2022 comes and goes without at least two more metric tons removed, as the law also requires, the attorney general needs to file another lawsuit. Because the federal government — which has left itself few if any good options for dealing with the deadly legacy of the Cold War — has made it clear that it is not going to remove this material from our state voluntarily.