The South: Global Dumping Ground

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.

The safe disposal of radioactive waste is perhaps the most uncertain and weakest point in the already fragile nuclear cycle. Wastes come in many forms, from different sources, and with varying dangers – but they all have one thing in common. They are all highly unstable substances, undergoing a decaying process that emits poisonous radioactive particles which are nearly impossible to contain. 

For obvious reasons, no one wants nuclear poisons buried in their back yard. The government is not sure how to store high-level wastes anyway, and each time it goes out looking for a possible dumping ground, it meets stiff resistance from citizens in the chosen area. Now several states — including Louisiana — have banned radioactive waste storage within their boundaries. 

The lack of a permanent burial site puts increasing pressure on other parts of the nuclear cycle as well; some states, for example, have already instituted moratoriums on nuclear reactor construction until an adequate plan for safely disposing of the high-level wastes they generate is implemented. Ultimately, the failure to find an acceptable solution to storing high-level radioactive wastes may doom the nuclear industry. The continuous horror stories of leaks and mismanagement of low-level dumps certainly bring them no new friends. The industry is now fighting hard to expand existing facilities and get the government to underwrite the expense of more permanent ones for longer-lasting wastes. The final showdown between this determined industry and the citizens opposed to a nuclear future may well occur in the South. 

As the following summary indicates, the South already has more than its fair share of nuclear waste sites, including the only location storing commercial low-level wastes east of the Mississippi. And government documents indicate, from our best reading of their often confusing messages, that the South will host one, and possibly both, of the two high-level waste repositories scheduled for completion in the next 20 years. 


Oak Ridge National Lab 

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), operated by 5,000 Union Carbide employees, has been producing and storing wastes since World War II. The DOE describes Oak Ridge as “primarily a research, development and test facility. Routine operations of the test reactors and other nuclear facilities produce low-level wastes, TRU-contaminated wastes and intermediate-level waste.” 

ORNL currently houses around 16 percent of the nation’s low-level defense program wastes, buried in shallow trenches around the laboratory facility. 

A small amount of TRU-contaminated waste was stored in similar trenches until 1970, when the federal government realized it was more dangerous than originally assumed and began to place the material in retrievable containers in the trenches for eventual burial in a high-level waste depository. 250,000 cubic feet of TRU waste at Oak Ridge await the development of a disposal method. 

The “intermediate-level waste” consists of more than 1.6 million gallons of liquid by-products from research and development activities. Other facilities either concentrate such waste into solid high-level waste or “decontaminate” and manage it as low-level waste. ORNL, however, combines these wastes with cement and injects them into shale formations beneath the laboratory. 

The quantities of material stored at the Lab should continue to grow at a steady rate. DOE currently spends approximately $40 million annually on “interim waste operations” at ORNL. Major projects include constructing a second shale facility for the intermediate-level waste and taking a primary role in federal experiments on the best means to store commercial low-level waste. 


Savannah River Plant 

The Atomic Energy Commission established the Savannah River Plant (SRP) near Aiken, South Carolina, in 1950 “to produce nuclear materials for the national defense.” Sprawling over 300 square miles along the Savannah River, the plant employs 6,000 operators and a full-time construction crew of 2,000, all under the supervision of E.I. DuPont, the sole contractor for the site. Besides producing nuclear weapons materials, the plant stores waste products from those materials and from other DOE operations, and even spent fuel rods from reactors in other countries. The plant contains a variety of wastes, including: 9.27 million cubic feet of low-level waste from federal projects, about 25 percent of the national total; 1.06 million cubic feet of TRU-waste, less than 10 percent of the national total; and 2.9 million cubic feet of defense-produced high-level wastes, about 30 percent of the national total. The budget for “interim waste operations” to handle this material comes to roughly $60 million annually. 

As elsewhere, the low-level wastes are buried in shallow trenches. The TRU-waste produced since 1970 is stored in below-ground retrievable containers, but most of the 1.06 million cubic feet sits in shallow trenches alongside the low-level waste. 

Considerable controversy arose when the SRP became the site for one of the first federal attempts at high-level waste disposal. California Energy Resources Commissioner Emiliano Varanini summarized its twisted history before a Congressional committee: “Project Bedrock, Savannah River Project: USGS [United States Geological Survey] suggested bedrock useful for disposal (1951); USGS studies begin in 1958; proposal to dump liquid wastes (later shifted to solidified wastes) in bedrock about 1961; NAS [National Academy of Sciences] doubts safety (1966); and (1972) project suspended because of safety concerns over possible breakthrough into overlying freshwater aquifer.” 

While testing the feasibility of Project Bedrock, the government simply stored high-level wastes in underground steel tanks — with disastrous results: on at least nine occasions, waste leaked from the tanks; in one incident, 700 gallons escaped from the storage tanks, some of which reportedly entered the local drinking water supply.

In fact, the plant lies over an aquifer which supplies drinking water for the residents of eastern Georgia. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was instrumental in persuading the federal government to abandon the plant as a long-term waste disposal site. 

Now the high-level wastes are being transferred from single-shell tanks to more modern double-shell tanks; the transfer process should be completed by 1986. Additionally, the liquid high-level wastes are being evaporated into salt-cake form to reduce inventories of high-level waste to 2.6 million cubic feet by 1985. 

Savannah River currently leads the nation in reprocessing high-level wastes into final repository form. DOE plans to begin building the Defense Waste Processing Facility at SRP in 1983, with a scheduled completion date of 1989. This facility will experiment with various methods of retrieving, immobilizing and temporarily storing high-level waste. The current program calls for converting the wastes into a glass-like solid and placing the resulting product in steel containers, ready for permanent disposal in whatever repository DOE selects. 

In addition, despite the current federal ban on applying the technology, experiments continue at SRP to find a means of storing high-level liquid wastes from the reprocessing of spent fuel. Technicians are preparing a policy statement on managing spent fuel and will produce an environmental impact statement on spent-fuel storage. 


Maxey Flats 

The Maxey Flats low-level waste facility near Morehead, Kentucky, was the first commercial low-level dump built in the South; it opened in 1963. Nuclear Engineering Company (NECO), which operates two other low-level waste sites in the Western states, came to the Maxey Flats plateau after an aggressive recruiting effort by the Kentucky Department of Commerce “to attract nuclear industries including fuel-processing facilities, spent-fuel reprocessing facilities and a waste disposal facility for the disposal of the radioactive wastes generated by these and other facilities.” Only the third ambition was realized. 

Until its shutdown in late 1977, the Maxey Flats plant handled low-level wastes from a variety of operations including nuclear power generation, medical technology and private industrial research and development. NECO buried 4.95 million cubic feet of commercial low-level waste in Maxey Flats’ shallow trenches, which in 1977 made up slightly more than 30 percent of the nation’s total commercial low-level storage. However, the facility also handled TRU wastes; by 1977, Maxey Flats housed 69.1 kilograms of TRU waste, roughly 55 percent of all commercially produced TRU waste in the country. 

The Department of Energy warns, “Most transuranic nuclides show the unusual combination of long half-life and high specific toxicity” — they are extremely dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Yet NECO buried the TRU waste at Maxey Flats in shallow trenches like the low-level wastes until federal regulations changed in 1970, and already-buried materials remain in the shallow trenches. 

Waste Dumps: Present Sites and Future Possibilities

1 Oak Ridge, Tenn. Oak Ridge National Laboratory 

2 Aiken, S.C. Savannah River Plant 

3 Morehead, Ky. Maxey Flats 

4 Barnwell, S.C. Chem-Nuclear and AGNS 

5 Paducah, Ky. DOE’s gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facility 

6 Amarillo, Tex. Pantex weapons plant near here. 

7 Winston-Salem, N.C. Proposed toluene processing and waste disposal plant. 

8 Hattiesburg, Miss. Salt domes near this city are possible high-level waste storage sites. 

9 Northeastern La. The Vacherie & Rayburn salt domes, possible high-level waste storage site. 

10 East Tex. The Keehchi, Palestine and Oakwood salt dome, possible high-level waste storage site. 

11 Appalachian Mountains. Granite deposits are considered desirable waste storage medium. 

12 Florence, S.C. The clay-based rocks are desirable waste storage medium. 

13 Coastal plain of N. and S. Carolina. Sedimentary rocks here are possible waste storage medium. 

14 New Hill, N.C. The Savannah River Lab spent $50,000 in 1977 to test rock formations here for waste storage potential. 

15 Huntsville, Ala. Waste from TVA’s Brown’s Ferry Reactor is stored here and there is vigorous public opposition to TVA’s desire to designate it as an AFR site. 


In 1973, the Kentucky state government began to investigate possible leaks of radioactivity from the site. A six-month study concluded that higherthan-expected levels of radiation escaped — including some plutonium — but saw no immediate danger to the area. They did, however, call for further federal studies, and restricted storage of tritium (radioactive water), which had been leaking from the trenches in large quantities. 

A 1976 Environmental Protection Agency study charged that significant quantities of plutonium had escaped from the plant: “The burial site was expected to retain the buried plutonium for its hazardous lifetime [250,000 years], but plutonium has migrated from the site in less than 10 years.” The press release on this study provoked extreme public alarm. Governor Julian Carroll persuaded the state legislature to impose a 10-cent surcharge per pound of material stored at the facility; the resulting exorbitant price cut off 97 percent of the incoming volume. Finally, in December, 1977, the state paid NECO $1.25 million for its lease rights and closed the facility. 

One state advisory committee commented that “the decision to locate a nuclear burial site at Maxey Flats was a mistake.” That mistake has become an enormous burden to Kentucky taxpayers. Robert Slaton, Commissioner of the state Bureau for Health Services, told a House committee: “At the present time, the state is forced to bear the entire cost of maintaining the facility although it is no longer open for commercial use. The annual cost to Kentucky, paid solely by the Kentucky taxpayers, is $1.6 million, and estimates of $16 million have been given on the cost to get the Kentucky waste facility into a de-commissioned status. All of this expense being borne by Kentucky is compounded by the fact that 99 percent of the radioactive waste being buried in Kentucky originated outside the state.” 



The only currently operating commercial low-level waste facility on the East Coast is the Barnwell, South Carolina, plant managed by Chem-Nuclear Systems, Inc. This facility opened in 1970 with a license from the Atomic Energy Commission. The state of South Carolina owns the property and leases it to Chem-Nuclear, with the leasing fees set aside for maintenance of the site once it is filled up. 

Business has been quite good for Chem-Nuclear. Ninety percent of its operating revenues come from Barnwell — 35 percent from storage of low-level wastes and 65 percent from nuclear reactors and the nuclear industry for such services as technical assistance during power outages and assistance with decommissioning nuclear facilities. In the past five years, sales increased 500 percent and profits 800 percent. In 1978, the company cleared $1.9 million on sales of $15.4 million — a hefty 12.7 percent return on sales. 

In fact, business might be too good. Chem-Nuclear currently holds over one-half of the nation’s existing commercial low-level waste products — 51 over seven million cubic feet. The company took over virtually all the business from the abandoned Maxey Flats facility, and now stores large quantities of wastes from the Western half of the country, especially when Nevada temporarily closed the Beatty facility in 1979 because of leaks from a truck carrying waste to the site. Overall, the plant now receives about 4,800 shipments of waste per year — roughly 85 percent of all the low-level wastes commercially produced in the United States. 

This state of affairs has alarmed South Carolina, known to many as the nuclear dumping grounds of the world. According to Ken DuFrane of Chem-Nuclear, South Carolina originally licensed the facility “with the understanding that it would serve reactors in the southeast United States.” South Carolina recently restricted disposal at the site to two million cubic feet per year and offered preferred-customer status to Southern reactor operators. 

After Three Mile Island, concern escalated even further. Governor Richard Riley turned back several shipments of waste from the damaged reactor, closed the facility to out-of-state institutional wastes (primarily medical- and research-produced); and indicated the state’s decreasing interest in accepting low-level waste in the future. Riley expressed concern that, as with other abandoned waste dumps, the plant could become a financial drain on the state: “If Barnwell fills up too quickly, South Carolina taxpayers will have to foot the bill for perpetual maintenance.” To protect against this problem, Governor Riley negotiated new leasing rates from Chem-Nuclear in September, 1978, that will raise the state’s fees 600 percent by 1981; this move should further protect the state financially and, more importantly, reduce the flow of waste into the Barnwell site. The new rates will at least double the cost per cubic foot of storage, making many shipments to the plant prohibitively expensive. 

There will probably be further limitations placed on Chem-Nuclear. As Governor Riley’s energy advisor David Reid comments, “We should have new restrictions on waste storage for Chem-Nuclear within the next 12 to 18 months.” 

Aside from these major facilities, numerous small radioactive dumps dot the South. The Department of Energy stores small quantities of uranium-contaminated material at the Paducah and Oak Ridge gaseous diffusion uranium enrichment facilities, the Pantex weapons plant in Texas and the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge. Also, several facilities — some now abandoned — have handled radioactive institutional wastes. And concern over their management has recruited new members for anti-nuclear forces. For instance, residents of Wilkes County, North Carolina, have aggressively opposed a toluene processing and waste disposal plant which has spewed radioactive gases into the local area and is located only 100 yards from the Kerr Scott Reservoir — the major water supply for the city of Winston-Salem. At this point, no decision has been reached by the state panel appointed by the NRC to reconsider the plant’s operating permit, but opponents hope for a shutdown. 




Low-Level Waste Storage 

Chem-Nuclear’s Barnwell plant is now the only operating commercial low-level waste dump in the country. Nevada has closed its Beatty facility, and now ardently pro-nuclear Washington governor Dixie Lee Ray has closed the Hanford waste site. The federal government had expected Barnwell, Hanford and Beatty to handle all the nation’s low-level wastes for the next 10 years. Thus far, no federal agency has established regulations for licensing a new facility, although low-level waste is piling up at the rate of 25 percent per year. Since South Carolina no longer will accept massive quantities of low-level waste, other states will soon be candidates for their own waste facilities. 

Chem-Nuclear is reluctant to discuss its plans for new sites. “I can’t address that question directly because of the emotional issues involved in choosing a site in a new state,” says Chem-Nuclear official Herb Oakley. But the company has already started the search for new sites in one state: Texas. The company employs several powerful lobbyists, including the former director of the Governor’s Energy Advisory Council, to push its case in the Texas legislature. Though the effort to pass a bill approving a facility failed in the 1979 session, Chem-Nuclear’s supporters announced plans to introduce an amended version of the bill in the next session. And the Texas Advisory Committee on Nuclear Energy recently recommended in the Texas Register that the state work to develop its own low-level waste facility. 

In fact, such planning is likely in the near future to become necessary in every state producing nuclear wastes. According to David Reid, South Carolina is already studying the possibility of restricting storage to wastes produced in the Southeast, and has also contemplated a total ban on all wastes produced outside the state. In the discussion of the Texas bill, one of the first amendments called for a ban on importation of out-of-state wastes to any Texas facility. 

The message has not been lost on Southern governmental officials. For instance, North Carolina recently established a task force on institutional low-level waste storage to investigate possible sites in the state. South Carolina Governor Riley’s recent restrictions on waste shipments into Barnwell, the shutdown of the Beatty and Hanford facilities, and especially Kentucky’s nightmare with the Maxey Flats plant all indicate strongly that every state will have to create its own low-level waste dump. 


High-Level Waste Disposal 

The major question, of course, remains: where will we dispose of high-level wastes? Utility companies brand this as a defense problem, pointing out that military wastes account for 90 percent of the country’s existing high-level waste material. But their argument only considers the volume of the wastes. The radioactivity — and therefore the danger — of spent fuel rods produced through 1978 roughly equaled that of all high-level defense wastes. And the volume of commercial spent fuel rods will double over the next five years and grow steadily thereafter. 

Reprocessing would eliminate some, but far from all, high-level liquid waste. If the ban on reprocessing continues, then the spent fuel rods themselves must ultimately be placed in a permanent depository alongside the military-produced wastes. Therefore, the need for a permanent and safe method of disposing of nuclear waste poses a monumental dilemma for both the nuclear weapons program and the commercial nuclear power industry. 

The Department of Energy focuses on deep-earth burial as the most feasible disposal option; other suggestions have ranged from burying the stuff in the ocean to shooting it into space. Right now, the department projects a start-up date of between 1988 and 1992 for its first burial site, with a second facility scheduled for construction shortly thereafter. Plans call for locating the two facilities in different parts of the country; with a large number of desirable sites in the region, the Southern states will likely host one — and since the federal government classifies Texas and Louisiana in a different section of the country from the Southeastern states, the South could conceivably end up with both sites. 

The first site for a disposal facility appears to be a salt dome, most likely an abandoned salt mine. The AEC pushed this option for a number of years and pursued a depository site in Lyons, Kansas, until it discovered that large quantities of water might seep into the salt dome. Since then, a number of salt domes have received considerable attention, but the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation (ONWI) now gives highest priority to the Interior Gulf Coast salt domes of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Specifically, the ONWI points to eight domes as desirable sites: the Cypress Creek, Richton and Lampton domes near Hattiesburg, Mississippi; the Vacherie and Rayburn domes in northeast Louisiana; and the Keechi, Palestine and Oakwood domes in East Texas. 

The U.S. Geological Survey, in its circular “Geologic Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Wastes — Earth Science Perspectives,” detailed many of the potential flaws of salt-dome disposal and indicated the amount of study still necessary before a salt dome can be guaranteed as a safe waste repository. The unresolved questions concerning such storage are numerous. Most involve the potentially explosive interaction between the extremely hot spent fuel rods and steamy brine, and the possible migration of radioactive materials into underground water supplies. Also, most salt deposits are located near other valuable mineral deposits such as potash and natural gas. Radioactive materials could enter these deposits, while future mining of these minerals could damage the integrity of the waste depository. These results would take a long time to develop, but safe disposal of high-level radioactive material depends on thousands of years of careful containment. 

Citizens in the areas around the salt domes are mobilizing to block waste depositories in their backyards. Mississippians Against Disposal (MAD) have organized state-wide and strongly support the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission’s refusal to allow the Department of Energy to test the Lampton salt dome. Though Texas Governor Billy Clements has stated, “I’m not sure that we in Texas couldn’t have some kind of reasonable accommodations [to nuclear waste disposal],” not all of his Texas constituents agree. DOE officials investigating the Permian salt basin in the Texas panhandle encountered so much opposition that they now downplay its potential as a storage site. Maintaining “We did our share and then some,” the county commissioners of Matagorda County, Texas (site of the South Texas Nuclear Project), banned permanent waste storage in the county. Other East Texas communities have begun to protest DOE plans to use their salt mines for disposal. And Louisiana has flatly banned the disposal of radioactive wastes in the state’s salt mines. 

The opposition to using salt domes might be leading the DOE to consider other possibilities. The Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation identifies granite deposits — the option chosen in Canada, Britain and Sweden — as the second-most desirable waste storage medium. All of the Appalachian mountain states have suitable granite deposits. Third on the list are the argillaceous (clay-based) rocks of the type found in the Triassic Basin of the South Carolina-North Carolina-Virginia Piedmont. The shallow Florence basin of northeast South Carolina has been the main target for field testing. And finally sedimentary rocks in the coastal plain of North and South Carolina have attracted attention. Ironically, many of these same geologic sites — and the salt domes as well — coincide with areas that might bear uranium deposits (see article on uranium mining). 

Though these sites have received little attention as high-level storage dumps, DOE has already conducted investigations in each area, usually without informing the local governments. For instance, in March, 1978, officials of the Savannah River Lab informed the North Carolina Governor’s Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste Terminal Storage that, several months previously, it had spent $50,000 to test rock formations in the New Hill, North Carolina, area. The Lab also let contracts to explore the southeastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain. 

All these possibilities are still grossly underdeveloped for the 1988 startup target date for the first deep-earth burial site. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Richard Cunningham has informed South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Nancy Stevenson that it could take as long as 20 to 25 years before such a facility could be finished. In the meantime, high-level military wastes will remain in the tanks and storage areas at the Savannah River Plant. In fact, they might stay in the plant forever. Despite the safety problems that cancelled the earlier attempt to use SRP as a depository, the General Accounting Office now recommends that existing military waste facilities be used for permanent waste storage, moving SRP right back to the top of the list of potential waste sites. 

Public reaction in the states with attractive granite, clay and sedimentary deposits has been less vigorous than in the salt dome states, perhaps because of the lack of publicity surrounding their consideration. However, the North Carolina General Assembly did pass a resolution in 1979 requesting that the federal government not consider the state for long-term waste disposal sites. And even South Carolina has become increasingly irritated by the federal government’s planning methods. Says Lieutenant Governor Stevenson: “South Carolina has been led down the garden path by the federal government regarding the temporary storage of high-level nuclear waste. . . . Ten years have already passed and it will take another 25 to 30 years before a permanent storage facility can even be brought on line.” 

The message is clear: none of the states will welcome a high-level waste disposal facility. Stevenson says: “We should learn a lesson from this: We should not take the assurances of the federal government at face value.” The public obviously learned the lesson before the politicians. At every site it publicly targets for waste storage, DOE encounters substantial local opposition. In fact, given the uniform protest from citizens and state officials, DOE probably will not be able even to begin construction on a waste depository in any of these states before the 1988 target date. 


AFR Storage 

Because of the slow progress in developing a terminal high-level waste storage facility, and the current moratorium on spent fuel reprocessing, existing reactors’ storage tanks are filling up with spent-fuel rods. Already 4,000 metric tons of spent fuel are stored in existing reactors, with an additional 98,000 metric tons projected by 2000. In many cases, the tanks at the reactors will be full long before the 1988 target date for completing a high-level waste depository. Therefore, the Savannah River Operations Office and DuPont are backing a relatively new concept: away-from-reactor (AFR) storage. This program would involve constructing a central facility that could handle spent fuel rods from a number of operating reactors; it is currently a top priority for the Department of Energy: “DOE’s FY 1980 program plans to provide AFR storage capacity by 1983.” 

Before this DOE announcement, Tennessee Valley Authority chairman David Freeman had tried to take the lead role in developing AFR storage. In the fall of 1978, he sent a letter to President Carter urging the federal government to designate Oak Ridge as an AFR site, and he visited Washington seeking $500 million in private funding for a massive facility that could store 15,000 metric tons of spent fuel. Freeman also mentioned the Savannah River Plant and TVA’s Browns Ferry reactor in Huntsville, Alabama, as possible AFR sites. Then after having moved ahead on all fronts, Freeman backed up and instructed his staff to undertake a study of TVA’s options in handling spent fuel storage. 

Communities in the TVA service area responded immediately. The Huntsville City Council and three counties in north Alabama passed resolutions opposing the use of Browns Ferry as an AFR site. And on February 2, 1979, at a rally sponsored by Volunteers for Clean Energy, 150 people gathered at TVA’s twin towers in Knoxville, Tennessee, to protest plans for using Oak Ridge as an AFR site. Chanting the words “Awful, Foul, Rotten,” they lashed out at Freeman’s plans and specifically criticized the lack of public input into the staff investigation. Many protestors carried their objections to the TVA board meetings. Finally, the staff report recommended that TVA’s spent fuel rods be stored at individual reactor sites, and TVA shelved its AFR plans. 

Why the vehement opposition? AFR storage sites only compound the dangers inherent in the nuclear fuel cycle by transporting tons of highly radioactive materials to one central location. And without definite plans for a long-term disposal site, the AFR site cannot be located near a final depository. Additional unresolved questions concern the fees for AFR storage and the burden of financial liability in the event of an accident. 

Nevertheless, DOE considers the AFR concept crucial to the future of the nuclear industry. Robert Mills of the Edison Electric Institute agrees: “An approved legislative plan on AFR is an absolute necessity before utilities can commit to power plants.” Industry officials threaten that reactors might have to shut down by 1984 because of inadequate storage space. 

The General Accounting Office has attacked DOE’s assumptions on AFR storage, maintaining the industry will need to store only 152 metric tons by 1983 (DOE predicts 560) and would need to store only 1,433 metric tons by 1988 (DOE says 3,860). However, even if the GAO is correct, some form of temporary storage must be devised if it takes as long as 25 years to complete a permanent depository, as the NRC indicated to Lieutenant Governor Stevenson. 

DOE will likely accept the option of least resistance. Currently that option is to buy the Allied General Nuclear Services reprocessing facility in Barnwell, South Carolina, which — for a price of $500 million — would provide both 5,000 metric tons of storage space and a hypothetically workable reprocessing facility. Aside from the now-abandoned General Electric reprocessing facility in Sheffield, Illinois, and the abandoned Getty reprocessing plant in West Valley, New York, the AGNS plant is the only existing facility that can be converted for AFR use (see article on page 44). 

At present, Congress is reluctant to approve funds for any AFR facility. TVA’s decision to cancel its AFR plans could put a damper on the process of approval. But according to AGNS, the South Carolina congressional delegation has been more receptive to the idea of AFR storage than any other state’s representatives, so South Carolina looms as first choice for an AFR site. 



Whatever plans the federal government does endorse will likely prove unpopular. But plans will undoubtedly involve the South, particularly if the federal government can’t find a willing host for a waste dump. Unfortunately, no matter how effective political organizing becomes on this issue, and no matter how definitively a state demonstrates its opposition — Louisiana’s outright ban, for instance — no guarantee exists that the people’s feelings will make any difference. As Governor Riley’s energy assistant David Reid notes, “Passing a law saying the federal government can’t store wastes doesn’t really mean much.” A report by the General Accounting Office makes this even more clear: “Notwithstanding this State legislation, the Federal Government can mandate the location of nuclear waste repositories through the right of eminent domain.” 

Given the unanswered political, economic and technical questions, it is impossible to predict what plans will be announced over the next few years. The more we learn, the more we find ourselves further from a comprehensive waste storage plan than we were when the nuclear industry first got started. The most logical solution — to store what we have produced as effectively as possible and stop producing further nuclear wastes — is not among DOE’s current proposals for waste planning. 

So far, perhaps the most promising solution for waste disposal has been suggested by Texas legislator Ron Waters, who introduced a bill to require utility companies to store their nuclear wastes in their corporate headquarters. Passage of this bill could lead us in the right direction faster than any other option now under consideration.



Definitions of Radioactive Waste

Definitions of the various types of radioactive waste material are hard to come by. DOE and NRC publications often include confusing and even contradictory explanations, but here’s a summary of the best available definitions for each major category: 

1) LOW-LEVEL WASTE is generated in almost all activities involving radioactive materials. Most of this material is simply dumped into trenches and buried. Typical low-level solid waste consists of contaminated equipment; filters from the cleanup of gaseous wastes; ion-exchange resins from the cleanup of liquid waste; liquid waste converted to solid form by being mixed into concrete; and miscellaneous contaminated trash such as paper, rags, glassware and protective clothing. Such wastes result from nuclear reactor operation, weapons production, medical and industrial uses, and research and development programs. All low-level waste is converted into solid form for storage. It remains radioactive for up to several hundred years. 

2) “TRANSURANIC WASTES result predominantly from spent fuel reprocessing, the fabrication of plutonium to produce nuclear weapons and, if it should occur, plutonium fuel fabrication for recycle to nuclear reactors.” TRU wastes consist of materials with small concentrations of manmade radioactive elements such as plutonium, which are heavy atoms formed when non-fissionable atoms gain extra neutrons. TRU wastes are all in solid form. Buried in retrievable containers, they await a feasible method of long-term storage.

3) “HIGH-LEVEL WASTES are either intact fuel assemblies that are being discarded after having served their useful life in a nuclear reactor (spent fuel) or the portion of wastes generated in the reprocessing of spent fuel that contain virtually all of the fission products and most of the actinides not separated out during reprocessing.” These wastes break down into two subcategories:

 a) SPENT FUEL RODS: Only recently, since President Carter’s moratorium on reprocessing, have spent fuel rods been considered waste material. Waste disposal plans now include provisions for storing spent fuel rods, chiefly through plans for development of APR storage facilities. In the past, planners automatically assumed spent fuel would be reprocessed, leaving only liquid high-level waste from reprocessing.

 b) LIQUID HIGH-LEVEL WASTES are presently produced only in military fuel reprocessing operations. The startup of the AGNS facility in Barnwell, South Carolina, would produce similar materials from commercial fuel reprocessing. 


These definitions, and much of the material in this section, are adapted from two government publications: Report to the President by the Interagency Review Group on Nuclear Waste Management (Department of Energy TID-2881 7, October, 1978), and Nuclear Waste Management Program Summary Document FY 1980 (DOE/ET-0094, April, 1979).