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Stainless steel cylinders containing high-level liquid radioactive waste immobilized in glass is stored in underground tubes in this vast warehouse and sealed. Michael Pronzato/Staff

The Savannah River Site’s mixed-oxide fuel plant is being mothballed, leaving the national laboratory with 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, and there’s little hope Congress will soon come up with funding to restart the Yucca Mountain disposal project in Nevada.

The sad truth is that the United States has spent more than $17 billion trying to find permanent storage for some 90,000 metric tons of fissionable material or nuclear waste stored at 121 sites in 35 states.

And it still has no place to go.

Nothing substantive has been done in decades. A federal insurance program pays out about $400 million per year for nuclear plants to store spent fuel rods on-site. Worse, there’s little hope the 116th Congress will even broach the topic.

Why? Partly because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she won’t support restarting the Yucca Mountain project as long as Nevada’s leaders are opposed to it, despite earthquake-prone California having plenty of its own nuclear waste to dispose of.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., supports refunding the Yucca Mountain site — there’s about $40 billion in a fund for nuclear waste disposal — but it’s unclear if the veteran lawmaker can muster the political strength needed to get the issue on the agenda before he retires in 2020. The Senate rejected President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget request for restarting Yucca Mountain.

Gov. Henry McMaster and South Carolina’s congressional delegation have been unable to persuade the administration to keep SRS’s multibillion-dollar mixed oxide, or MOX, project going. Instead the federal government wants to dilute and dispose of the surplus at SRS for about half the cost.

Marked for failure

According to Rick Lee, the head of the Governor’s Nuclear Advisory Council, the MOX plant was set up for failure because of perennial underfunding that led to construction delays and added costs.

The bottom line is that SRS could be indefinitely stuck with a huge stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and untold amounts of other nuclear waste. That’s unacceptable, and a betrayal of the federal government’s promise to store the dangerous material elsewhere.

The feds are now promising to move about a metric ton of diluted nuclear waste to a Nevada site by 2020, but Nevada’s attorney general has filed suit to block it, even though the site would be only an interim destination.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Reno declined to grant a temporary injunction the state was asking for and agreed to let Justice Department lawyers file additional arguments including one that would shift the litigation back to South Carolina, presumably to U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs, who is well-versed in the saga.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, whose office has asked to be an intervener in the lawsuit, must continue to fight Nevada’s challenge and, if the plutonium is not moved, pursue monetary damages under a law that calls for fining the government $1 million for every day it doesn’t remove at least a metric ton of plutonium in the first 100 days of each year through 2022.

Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration and Department of Defense have floated the idea of converting surplus weapons-grade plutonium at SRS into “pits” — the fissionable core of bombs. That might benefit some laid-off SRS employees — about 1,000 notices have been sent out with more expected later this month — but it would do woefully little to reduce the stockpile. Pits require only a few kilograms of plutonium, and only about 40 per year are expected to be produced there, if ever.

Nowhere to go?

The only functioning U.S. disposal site is near Carlsbad, N.M., about 2,000 feet underground in a salt bed, and it’s just a pilot project designed primarily for mid-level nuclear waste. It’s at least half full. And there are only a handful of low-level nuclear waste sites nationwide, including one in Barnwell.

And SRS isn’t the only problem in South Carolina. This past summer in Richland County, a radioactive spill at a Westinghouse-run fuel rod site seeped into the soil.

In eastern Idaho in April, four barrels of radioactive sludge started a smoldering fire and burst in an unlined pit at a national laboratory run by Fluor Corp., which has processed 9,500 barrel of the stuff — all eventually, supposedly, bound for the New Mexico site. A Department of Energy advisory board in Washington, D.C., will hold hearings on what to do about that in May.

While we remain stuck in place, the rest of the nuclear world is moving ahead. France operates two mixed oxide plants for about $265 million per year, far less than the projected cost of running the MOX plant at SRS. Finland plans to open a deep disposal site in five years or so, and the U.K. recently committed to finding a deep burial ground for its nuclear waste.

Most experts agree burying high-level waste in deep geologic formations is the best way to go. But some highly regarded academics recently recommended turning over spent fuel rods and other mid-level waste to private industry. That’s terrifying — opening up a $40 billion piggy bank to contractors to get rid of a poison that stays lethal for thousands of years — and a breach of duty and trust by the government.

Clean it up

The Trump administration is moving to lower the classification of some radioactive wastes that could involve material at SRS and allow it to stay put.

The reclassification sought by the DOE also would allow 177 tanks of liquid waste at the Hanford, Wash., bomb-making plant to stay in place. Already, millions of gallons of highly radioactive waste has leaked into the soil near the Columbia River there. Reclassification doesn’t require congressional approval.

South Carolina’s leaders must get the SRS cleanup on the agenda, fight to reopen Yucca Mountain and demand monetary damages pending plutonium removals. The federal government also must live up to its promises to South Carolina.