Business Still Booming at SRS

or how South Carolina learned to stop worrying and love the bomb


Bomb Phone rings, fax machine answers, and I look up from my desk to see what's coming in. Probably another news release about the Savannah River Site (SRS). What once was a trickle of information about the nuclear weapons complex has become a torrent.

    From World War II until the late 1980s, government policy kept almost everything secret about these plants, including most environmental and safety information. But as the Cold War melted into warm smiles between American and Soviet leaders, journalists and citizens here began to ask why dangerous chemicals and radioactive materials were showing up off-site in communities in more than a dozen states.

    They insisted that business at America's nuclear bomb plants be conducted openly and that the plants comply with the same laws that apply to commercial industries. They also demanded that the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency responsible for making nuclear weapons and disposing of their wastes, stop controlling the funding for most of this nation's research into the health effects of radiation exposure.

    DOE was eventually forced, through court rulings and new legislation, to change its ways. By the late 1980s, the agency began a series of dramatic reforms: signing various agreements with states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and opening an office to coordinate programs designed to comply with them; holding public meetings and releasing documents detailing activities at nuclear bomb factories; and negotiating for the Department of Health and Human Services to accept responsibility for radiation-related health research.

    In addition, Congress created an independent agency to oversee and make recommendations on (but not regulate) many of the defense nuclear facilities under DOE's control.

    DOE agreed to the changes, in part because -- as DOE's outgoing number two man, John Tuck, explained in 1992 -- the agency's ability to continue producing nuclear weapons was threatened by its failure to comply with environmental laws. Recognizing the cynicism of Tuck's remark is crucial to interpreting what has happened at SRS in the past few years, and what changes may lie ahead.

    Occupying some 310 square miles of pine forest, creeks and wetlands along the Savannah River between Aiken and Barnwell, SRS is home to a handful of nuclear reactors, two chemical reprocessing plants, and dozens of other facilities to make and purify radioactive materials.

    Most of the plants were built in the early 1950s after the federal government bought the homes (not always from willing sellers) of about 6,000 people. These plants operated day and night through 1988, turning out about 39 metric tons of plutonium and over 100 kilograms of tritium for use in nuclear bombs (each bomb requires about four grams), and other radioactive materials.

    Making these materials created vast quantities of radioactive and hazardous waste -- literally hundreds of millions of gallons of liquid waste, including some of the most dangerous material ever created, and tens of millions of cubic feet of solid waste. This toxic soup has been poured into ponds or steel tanks and buried in cardboard or steel boxes. None of the techniques used for controlling wastes has proved fail-safe, or always operated as predicted.

    The result is that untold amounts of hazardous chemicals and radioactive elemnts now reside in the soils, groundwater, lake and stream sediments at SRS. Concentrations range from hard-to-detect to thousands of times above safe drinking water guidelines.

    Some of these pollutants move very slowly through the soil, while others travel quickly to the groundwater, and in just a few years seep into creeks which flow into the Savannah River. The contamination most severely affects about 10 percent of the land at SRS.

    Production essentially stopped in 1988 because of concerns about the safety of the site's reactors. Even though the Cold War was winding down, federal policy called for continuing to maintain more than 20,000 nuclear warheads and making more plutonium and tritium for these weapons.

    Billions of dollars were spent over the next four years upgrading SRS facilities, primarily three of its reactors, and retraining plant employees. Before conditions were deemed acceptable for restart, however, down came the Berlin Wall, long a symbol of the divide between East and West, and the Soviet Union dissolved into several autonomous states.

    These political changes led to agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union, and later with Russia and other former Soviet countries, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each country's arsenal. If implemented, these agreements, negotiated under three American presidents, would bring the U.S. arsenal to about 2,000 warheads. Many people and organizations -- including scores of military officers, Nobel laureates, the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association -- have called for even deeper cuts, from zero to 1,000 warheads.

    Moreover, many years ago, the United States promised the world community -- by signing onto and then renewing in 1995 the Nonproliferation Treaty -- that it would work toward nuclear disarmament, a promise millions of people expect the United States to honor.

    You might think that with the nuclear arsenal shrinking it would be time to focus on cleaning up the heavily polluted Savannah River Site. You wouldn't be alone; two surveys completed last year by DOE-funded scientists found that South Carolinians strongly approve of spending federal funds to clean up nuclear contamination at SRS, that there is little support for continued nuclear production, and no support for storage of additional nuclear waste.

    Public sentiment aside, site managers and local politicians have made it a top priority to secure new missions for the plant, including tritium production, storing tons of plutonium in a "strategic reserve," and developing the capability to make bomb parts from plutonium quickly if the country suddenly decides to reverse course and resume the nuclear arms race.

    Not only are these proposals counter to the preferences of South Carolinians, they would mean accumulating yet more hazardous and radioactive waste at SRS and continuing the dependence of the area's economy on a dying industry.

    The effort to secure a new tritium production facility for SRS began in the early 1980s when DOE considered building two large, new reactor complexes. For more than a decade, SRS personnel, local politicians and business leaders have tried to get at least one facility built in South Carolina.

    Tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen, and it naturally decays at the rate of about 5.5 percent each year. This gas increases the yield of a nuclear bomb, making a bigger explosion from a small package. Because of its fairly fast decay, tritium in America's nuclear weapons is routinely removed and sent to SRS, where it is purified and reloaded into new nuclear weapons.

    This tritium "recycling" has been essentially the only tritium operation ongoing at SRS, and the only source of tritium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, since the site's reactors stopped operating almost a decade ago. The need to roduce new tritium, and whether to build some new production facility at SRS, depends on how long the arsenal can be maintained with the existing, decaying stock of tritium. And that depends almost entirely on political decisions as to how large a nuclear arsenal this country intends to maintain.

    When President George Bush left office in 1993, the United States did not need to produce new tritium until 2016 to meet the weapons need projected for the 21st century. But policy called for beginning to produce tritium by 2011 to maintain a five-year reserve (a policy implemented, oddly enough, after the Berlin Wall crumbled).

    Although some people, including a number from communities near SRS, warned that not producing tritium by 2011 would amount to unilateral nuclear disarmament, the consequences of not producing tritium by 2016 would hardly be dramatic. At worst, planners would have to look for new ways to extend the useful life of tritium and decide to make inactive some of the roughly 8,500 warheads remaining in the U.S. nuclear arsenal under START II, the last arms reduction agreement negotiated under the Bush Administration.

    Today, U.S. policy calls for producing new tritium by about 2004. The date was moved forward during President Bill Clinton's first term, ostensibly because the Russian Parliament has yet to ratify START II. Accelerating the schedule to produce tritium also at least partly satisfied calls from Sen. Strom Thurmond -- chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which controls much of DOE's budget -- to provide a future mission to SRS.

    "The senator is in favor of putting a new tritium source at Savannah River," Thurmond spokesperson Chris Cimko said.

    Asked how many nuclear weapons the United States needs in the post-Cold War world, and what threats nuclear weapons can address, Cimko said, "I don't think anyone has ever asked the senator to sit down and come up with a credible number of nuclear weapons we need. It's not a question of who are you going to bomb; it's what do we need to keep up our traditional defense posture."

    Thurmond blames Clinton's first secretary of energy for obstructing plans for new production. "The senator has knocked Hazel O'Leary for surrounding herself with policy wonks, like from the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)," Cimko said. "They were saying that we don't need more tritium because by the time it runs out we won't need nuclear weapons, and that's flat wrong."

    Tom Cochran, head of NRDC's Nuclear Program, said, "The issue isn't if, but when do we need to commit to a new source for tritium production."

    NRDC's opposition to a new tritium source at SRS has earned Thurmond's animosity. Cochran argues that when the United States needs more tritium it can get plenty from commercial sources, just like it does for some other non-nuclear bomb components.

    Cochran believes that the secrecy behind the government's tritium stockpile is outdated and that "Thurmond's office has basically corrupted legitimate debate on how much reserve is neededto justify construction of new facilities at SRS. Sen. Thurmond has never shied away from promoting jobs at SRS."

    Thurmond and others complain that DOE is moving too slowly toward a decision on what, if any, new tritium production facility will be built at SRS. DOE intends to decide next year. By then, the United States and Russia should have made progress on cuts which go further than START II, pushing back the need to produce tritium to about 2025. While this would frustrate efforts to spend federal dollars at SRS on a tritium production facility, it would move us toward a safer world.

    Most other missions being proposed for SRS involve continuing to receive nuclear wastes, including spent fuel for storage and possible reprocessing, so-called low-level nuclear waste for incineration or burial, and as much as 50 tons of surplus plutonium to store or convert into a form suitable for burial elsewhere. The reprocessing proposal is perhaps the most favored.

    Reprocessing is the chemical separation of nuclear materials, like plutonium, made in reactors. The by-product of reprocessing is a very large volume of highly radioactive liquid waste and less radioactive solid waste. Reprocessing operations are responsible for most of the waste generated at SRS, as well as soil and groundwater contamination. According to DOE estimates, trying to stabilize, contain and monitor reprocessing waste at SRS could cost over $20 billion.

    In 1992, then-Energy Secretary Admiral James Watkins announced that DOE was phasing out reprocessing and closing down facilities as they could be safely cleaned. The two SRS reprocessing canyons were to be shut down three to five years from now. Operations until then include emptying the buildings of radioactive materials and the more controversial operation of reprocessing miscellaneous nuclear fuels and targets stored on-site that were allowed to begin corroding during the final years of the Cold War.

    DOE is bringing tons of additional spent fuel to SRS from research reactors in the United States and several foreign countries. In addition, DOE proposes to bring in plutonium "residues" from some of its other plants. Westinghouse, which runs SRS, has also suggested accepting thousands of tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power reactors.

    DOE decision-makers are hearing primarily from advocates of reprocessing. So, for the sake of extending a mission at SRS and the jobs of several hundred people, South Carolina is continuing its reputation as the path of least resistance for nuclear waste.

    Most, though not all, of this spent fuel and plutonium-bearing material has already been produced. Something must be done to safely handle it, whether at SRS or elsewhere. Perhaps the key question for whatever portion ends up at SRS (some has already arrived at the site) is whether to continue using technology designed in the 1950s to help fight the Cold War, or to deploy more modern technology which minimizes the amount of plutonium separated into its weapons-usable form, risks to workers and the total amount of waste to be managed.

Burned boy

A reminder that nuclear bombs are more than political footballs: the charred remains of this boy were found in Nagasaki 700 meters from the hypocenter.

While so much attention goes to securing new missions for SRS, funding and the political will needed to clean up existing contamination are in jeopardy. DOE's environmental management program, from which most SRS activities are funded, is under heavy pressure to cut costs. Every dollar spent to generate more waste is a dollar unavailable to clean up. And with the total cost just to improve stabilization, containment and monitoring of the wastes and pollution at SRS -- not to actually clean it all up -- estimated at $30 -- 40 billion, every dollar counts.

    Political interest in cleaning up the site is eroding, in part because of the staggering costs and lack of technologies suitable to the task, and because of direct attacks on DOE's environmental program.

    Moreover, cleanup is seen by some as a threat. The goal of the environmental management program is ultimately to finish the job -- to get SRS into a condition that requires minimal surveillance and maintenance to protect the public and the environment from further harm. Once achieved, and without a new production mission, the multimillion dollar payroll at SRS would dry up.

    Rick Ford, a DOE spokesperson at SRS, acknowledged that a recent news story that ran in papers across the state was "more optimistic than we are about what cleanup means. A lot of what we are doing is stabilizing waste in place, with the hope of some future technology coming along."

    Ford pointed out that "cleaning up and stabilizing" the 32 million gallons of high level waste presently on site, will result in a pile of radioactive concrete that would cover an area the size of a football field to the height of a 140-story building. The giant concrete blocks will be buried at SRS until a better plan comes along for their ultimate safe disposal.

    There is a bargain implicit in much of the discussion about future SRS missions that lower cleanup expectations are acceptable as long as the federal government maintains ownership and a production-oriented mission. In other words, it's fine that about 30 square miles of South Carolina has been very heavily polluted, as long as tax money is spent to keep people employed in the polluted area.

    But this approach raises the fundamental question of how to spend federal tax dollars. Is it better to spend money trying to clean up the legacy of nuclear weapons production, or should that money go toward maintaining the ability to produce more nuclear weapons and an arsenal capable of destroying most life on the planet?

    The severity of environmental problems at SRS ensures a sizable federal presence there for at least 20 to 30 years. It will take that long just to complete existing plans for stabilizing the most dangerous wastes. Regardless of decisions about future production missions, thousands of people will continue working at SRS for at least another couple of decades.

    Decision makers must consider whether actions taken today will protect future generations, even people who might live, play or farm on what is now SRS in hundreds or thousands of years. Dangerous chemicals move through the soil and water, and at SRS that means they will likely wind up eventually in the Savannah River, an increasingly important source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people downstream. In addition, the pollutants at SRS will remain dangerous far longer than any of the job proposals now being considered.

    I laugh at first sight of the fax unrolling from the dusty machine sitting on the old typing table in my office. "Arms Race Hoax Exposed!" blares the headline of an article from a supermarket tabloid, "America's nuclear arsenal NEVER existed, says expert." It turns out, the expert and author of a new book says, that all those photos I've seen of nuclear missiles are really just pictures of wooden props, part of an elaborate illusion created jointly by the U.S. and Soviet governments.

    The article is only funny to me for a short while and because it is so absurd. But maybe this tabloid article, however absurd, has something important to say.

    It would be easy to forget or to deny the horror of using nuclear weapons. A single nuclear bomb can in an instant vaporize and leave charred everything in a city, including the tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people living there. The pictures taken after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which show the effects of what weaponeers today might consider a "wimpish" nuclear bomb are very real.

    Perhaps it would be even easier to forget or to deny the scars left here in South Carolina and in so many other places as a result our effort for so long to produce tens of thousands of nuclear weapons as cheaply as possible.

    Brian Costner is director of the Energy Research Foundation in Columbia.

© Copyright by POINT, 1997
Last modified 4/14/97