Along Savannah River, Nuclear Depot Eyed Warily Despite Safety Assurances

Eva Fedderly
Courthouse News Service

October 2, 2017

AIKEN, S.C. (CN) – A proposal to ship “highly enriched” nuclear material from Germany to Joint Base Charleston and then transport to the Savannah River Site by rail, is being panned by a citizens group that says the plan is not in the best interest of the general public.

Last week, the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board voted 10-9 to oppose the shipment of 900 kilograms of uranium. Two members abstained.

The Savannah River Site in Aiken is owned and operated by the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Covering roughly 300 square miles in South Carolina counties abutting the Savannah River, its primary mission is to process and store nuclear materials and other hazardous wastes left over from the Cold War.

Given that mission, and the site’s proximity to both the river and metropolitan areas like the cities of Augusta and Savannah, the facility touts its development and use of new technologies to improve handling of the materials.

In fact, on Friday, just three days after the advisory panel vote, the Savannah River Site released its annual assessment of its impact on the local environment, a report that says its impact on its neighbors has significantly diminished over time.

The facility based its contention on the near-constant sampling it does of air around its operation, and the routine sampling it does in the waters and soil it does in a significant portion of the Savannah River watershed.

The monitoring includes not just radiological testing, but also a range of other contaminants.

“We’re cleaning up legacy waste,” said Monte Volk, an SRS spokesperson. “We want to be good stewards of the environment. We work with the Savannah River National Lab to develop and deploy technology to improve our environmental methods and safely treat nuclear and hazardous wastes.

“The whole report is the Savannah River Site’s scope of work, in regards to its environmental management program,” Volk continued. “It lays out what we do, how we do it, and why.”

The Savannah River Site holds two permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, regulating its release of nonradiological pollutants into local bodies of water.

The program is administered by the S.C. Dept. of Health and Environmental Control, and covers a total of 63 locations where industrial wastewater or stormwater empties into the Savannah River or its tributary streams and creeks.

According to the Savannah River Site, it sampled these discharges 3,275 times in 2016, and of those, two samples exceeded the facility’s permitted limits for nonradiological contaminants.

It attributed one of the violations to a lowering levels during the closure of ash basins. That resulted it an uptick of suspended solids at a filter site. It said the other violation was caused by seven inches of rainfall that fell just before a sampling was done.

When it comes to radiation, the Savannah River Site said tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is the biggest “contributor to the potential dose to the public.”

Fortunately, the report says, air and water sampling conducted in 2016 showed tritium releases “continued an overall  downward trend …” and that as a result, “SRS did not significantly increase potential radiation exposure to the public.”

Digging into the report a little further, the Savannah River Site said that was radiological discharges did occur in 2016 were well below regulatory standards promulgated by the Energy Department.

“In 2016, the combined dose from air and water pathways — called the “all pathway” dose — was 0.19 mrem, which is well below the DOE public dose limit of 100 mrem/yr,” the report says. “Of this 0.19 mrem/yr dose, 0.15 mrem was from liquid releases, and 0.038 was from releases to the air.”

Based on those findings, the facility says, it “did not significantly increase potential radiation exposure to the public.”

But Becky Rafter, the executive director of Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, a local non-profit, said those living and working near the Savannah River are experiencing a growing number of health issues while coping with escalating environmental degradation.

While Rafter does not blame the Savannah River Site exclusively for these ills, she does believe it is one of the entities in the region — along with nearby nuclear power plants and industrial plants — that have a “compounding effect” on the river and the health of those who live near it.

But Rafter admits defining that effect is difficult. She says there hasn’t been an independent radiological monitoring program on the Georgia side of the river since 2003, and that someone — perhaps the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — needs to do more in terms of studying the effect of radiological contamination on human health.

“Most people in Burke County have at least one family member who’ve had cancer. Many people are afraid to drink the water entering their homes because Burke County is on a well water and is not a part of the [local] municipal water system,” she said.

Amy Armstrong, executive director and chief counsel at the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, said, “We know there’s radioactivity in the Savannah River. Barnwell County would say it’s coming from the Savannah River Site. I don’t know if anyone knows the real answer to that. I do know I’d rather have zero radioactive tritium in the drinking water.”

To address these concerns, the Energy Department created  the Radiological Education, Monitoring, and Outreach Project.

The program aims to “increase the Burke County community’s knowledge of the environmental monitoring programs in the area and allow citizens to have the knowledge to be able to read those programs findings and come to a conclusion about the data,” said Megan Winzeler, a project coordinator at the Savannah River Ecology Lab at the University of Georgia.

“[The project] will begin collecting samples with the Burke County community in 2018 to be used as a part of the education program,” Winzeler said. “These samples are not for regulatory purposes, but to help the citizens understand how monitoring is conducted and how to better understand the data once they have it.”

But some are already claiming the initiative is not addressing the  fundamental question: “Is the contaminated water causing human health effects?’”

“The Savannah River Site gives off straight-up air releases of radioactive tritium,” said Tonya Bonitatibus, the executive director of the Savannah Riverkeeper, a non-profit dedicated to restoring and protecting the Savannah River. The group has three offices along the Savannah River with its headquarters in Augusta, Georgia.

“It drifts then falls down with the rain. Houses, people, animals, and crops are being contaminated with tritium every time. But instead, REMOP is teaching people about science,” she said.

These and similar concerns inevitably lead to the question that divided the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board: Is it reasonable for the facility to take even more nuclear waste?

Susan Corbett, a member of the board and energy chair of the South Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club, has been following the issue of where to put nuclear waste since the 1970s.

“They keep trying to come up with crazy solutions of where to put all of this nuclear waste. There’s still no solution. Nobody in the world has a solution,” Corbett said.

Corbett, who has served on the advisory board for three years, said she’d been impressed by the Energy Department’s commitment to cleaning up legacy pollution from the Savannah River Site and tamping down on new contamination.

“There’s a heightened awareness on the part of the Department of Energy. The DOE has extensive techniques that are working,” she said.

But Corbett said people continued to have concerns about what may be getting into their drinking water and fear it could be making them sick.

“There’s been heightened awareness around this topic over the last decade,” Corbett said. “The Savannah River has been overused and strained. But there has been a call to action by many different groups and a genuine attempt to clean it up.”

Although the advisory board voted against accepting the nuclear material from Germany, its recommendations are not binding. The Energy Department will consider the board’s input, but still has the latitude to make whatever decision it wants regarding the material.

The material in question is actually of U.S. origin. It was sent to Germany in the 1950s for research purposes as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program.

Under the program, the United States agreed to take the uranium back, and use facilities at the Savannah River Site to convert it into a form that can’t be used to make weapons.