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. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the Department of Energy must break the national stalemate over the issue and find an acceptable solution.
The federal government has allowed the problem to fester for decades at the Savannah River Site, which was never intended to be used as a permanent storage facility. Recently, state Attorney General Alan Wilson rightly asked the DOE for a $200 million summary judgment in a lawsuit stemming from the feds’ broken promise to start removing surplus plutonium in 2016.
As reported in Sunday’s Post and Courier and Aiken Standard, based on a restricted government report obtained by the newspapers, South Carolina likely will be storing tons of weapons-grade plutonium for decades beyond a 2022 deadline set by Congress.
The report by the Energy Department and a contractor suggests that about 12,000 kilograms of plutonium — the nation’s second-biggest stockpile — will remain stored for nearly two decades at SRS, where it now sits in a 65-year-old former reactor building considered inadequate by the government’s own standards.
That’s perhaps part of the reason Mr. Wilson’s legal team is pressing its case for damages for failing to transfer the surplus plutonium — the explosive material in nuclear weapons.
Plutonium, a manmade element produced by bombarding uranium with neutrons, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years, the time it takes for half of its atoms to lose their radioactivity.
To put the scale of the problem in perspective, consider that it takes only about 6 kilograms of plutonium to make an atomic bomb on the scale of the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. That makes the SRS facility not only a security risk but a potential health hazard to hundreds of thousands of people in the Aiken-Augusta area.
Compounding the problem is the government’s cancellation of the mixed-oxide project at SRS that would have converted much of the plutonium into fuel for electricity-generating reactors. Additionally, the Energy Department wants SRS to start producing plutonium pits, the fissile core in nuclear bombs, but there are no guarantees those won’t also languish onsite.
Barring a breakthrough in national nuclear policy such as reopening of the Yucca Mountain disposal site, there are few states willing to accept the plutonium stored at SRS. Last year, the federal government quietly shipped a half-ton of plutonium from SRS to a site in Nevada, only disclosing the movement in January. That outraged Nevada politicians, and the state sued to prevent any further shipments.
The SRS plutonium could be consolidated at the Pantex nuclear weapons assembly plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas, according to the Energy Department report obtained by the newspapers. But that could take until 2037.
All of South Carolina’s state and federal elected officials should press for removal of the SRS plutonium. But if the federal government won’t move the material out of the state, South Carolina deserves to be paid for storing it, just as 34 states are paid for storing spent nuclear reactor fuel that has no place to go. And with $43 billion in a federal fund for just that purpose, the money is there for it.
Mr. Wilson also should seek to compel the federal government to construct a more substantial building for housing the surplus plutonium at SRS. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has pointed out numerous problems with the building, including a power failure in 2011 after a 60-year-old transformer failed, a storm that caused a breach in a concrete wall and potential problems in fighting a fire in the building. In 2015, the Energy Department reported the overall condition of the building as “poor.”
Because the federal government has repeatedly failed to live up to its promises regarding plutonium stored at SRS, the least it can do is pay the current fines and ensure the stockpile is properly secured pending its removal.
The larger problem of what to do with surplus nuclear materials and radioactive waste — something that has been festering since the 1940s — must ultimately be addressed on a national level. Restarting the Yucca Mountain project would be a good start.