South Carolina’s best near-term bet for getting rid of 12 surplus tons of weapons-grade plutonium stored at the Savannah River Site is burying it in deep salt beds at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. The problem is that there’s no guarantee WIPP, designed primarily to store lower level nuclear wastes, will take the plutonium, even ground up and diluted into a less volatile form.
That’s why it is crucial for South Carolina’s congressional delegation to make a concerted push to get the stockpile out of South Carolina. And Sen. Lindsey Graham needs to lead the effort to force the federal government to make good on its long-standing promise to remove the dangerous material.
Mr. Graham has spent a tremendous amount of political capital on developing a close relationship with President Donald Trump — something he acknowledges he has done so that he can influence the president on those matters he considers most important. Getting plutonium out of South Carolina needs to rise to the top of that list.
The sense of urgency has increased since the federal government in 2018 abandoned the mixed-oxide project that would have converted the plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.
Competition for space is fierce at the WIPP facility, owned by the U.S. Energy Department, because it’s the nation’s only operating nuclear disposal site. And South Carolina, which accepted tons of weapons-grade plutonium from across the nation and overseas, isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
The Department of Energy plans to bury nuclear weapons material in New Mexico. Officials there say the department hasn't asked their opinion.
For starters, the New Mexico government would have to agree to accept the plutonium, and the Energy Department would have to restructure its permitting process. And, as reported by The Post and Courier’s Thad Moore in his series on the topic, the Energy Department has had only informal talks on the topic with New Mexico.
South Carolina needs to get in line. Idaho just reached a deal for WIPP to take much of the waste from its national laboratory.
The federal government has proposed producing plutonium bomb cores at SRS. Converting SRS into a production facility for these "pits" would save some jobs at SRS and be in keeping with South Carolina's long tradition of contributing to a strong national defense. But the program is no sure thing and it would do little toward fulfilling the federal government's promise to remove radioactive materials from the site. Such an about-face at SRS has the potential to strand even more nuclear waste in South Carolina.
And SRS is unsuitable as a repository. Most of the plutonium there is stored in a 65-year-old reactor building that has had issues and shows its age.
Simply preparing the plutonium for disposal will likely take decades, so there will be no lack of jobs at SRS.
South Carolinians want to see SRS cleaned up.
South Carolina needs to get as much of its plutonium into WIPP as it can. Even with a recent recalculation of storage capacity, and even if the salt mines are expanded, it is unlikely WIPP would be able to hold all of SRS’ plutonium, much less its lower level nuclear waste.
Because DOE timelines for dealing with nuclear waste are so long, our congressional delegation and Gov. Henry McMaster must make it a top priority to move as much plutonium out of the state as soon as possible, as must future politicians.
Nevada lawmakers have already gotten assurances from Energy Secretary-nominee Dan Brouillette to remove plutonium stockpiles from that state, which, under protest, accepted a recent shipment from SRS.
Where are South Carolina politicians in this conversation?
Thankfully, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has continued to press the federal government to live up to its agreement to move plutonium out of the state. He needs help. Sen. Graham should lead the way.