Nuclear nonproliferation deals and environmental injustice in the South

The U.S. government's international nuclear nonproliferation efforts are adding to the environmental health risks faced by the disproportionately low-income and African-American communities near the Savannah River Site on South Carolina-Georgia border. (Photo of a man fishing on the Savannah River by Bruce Tuten via Flickr.)

As the Nuclear Security Summit took place in Washington last week, U.S. and Japanese officials announced they had completed the removal of highly radioactive material — including 730 pounds of plutonium, enough for more than 40 nuclear weapons — from a Japanese research project and were sending it to the Savannah River Site, a Department of Energy nuclear reservation located on the South Carolina-Georgia border.

The announcement came a week after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) wrote a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz demanding that the Japanese plutonium be turned back or sent elsewhere.

The shipment "puts South Carolina at risk for becoming a permanent dumping ground for nuclear materials," Haley wrote in the March 23 letter, a copy of which was viewed by the Reuters news agency. "Therefore, stop shipment or re-route this defense plutonium. God bless."

At the time Haley penned the letter, transfer of the plutonium from a Japanese government nuclear project in Tokaimura to a British-flagged ship had already begun, according to the public-interest group Savannah River Site Watch. The material will be shipped by armed transport to the military port in Charleston, South Carolina, a journey expected to take about 50 days, then trucked to the Savannah River Site.

Thirteen metric tons of toxic, weapons-grade plutonium are already stockpiled at the Savannah River Site, much of it as a result of a nonproliferation agreement with Russia.

It's been estimated that a single pound of plutonium could cause as many as 2 million deaths if inhaled. Another concern is that accumulated plutonium can reach critical mass, emitting deadly amounts of radiation. Criticality accidents have killed scientists and other nuclear industry workers in the U.S. and other countries. One such accident at Tokaimura in 1999 killed two workers and exposed at least 667 people — including nearby residents — to excessive doses of radiation.

A few days before last week's announcement of the U.S. deal with Japan, Moniz called Haley to tell her that 6 metric tons of plutonium from the Savannah River Site would ultimately be moved to a New Mexico facility that he said should be operational by the end of this year. That facility was shuttered in 2014 following a nuclear accident caused by workers using the wrong type of cat litter to clean up nuclear waste.

Haley called Moniz's pledge a "big win" but noted that the department "has not lived up to promises made in the past." Earlier this year, her administration initiated a lawsuit seeking to force the DOE to pay the state $1 million a day over its broken promise to finish building a facility at the Savannah River Site to convert the stockpiled plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel. That project was supposed to have been completed by Jan. 1 but has been plagued by cost overruns and delays as the DOE considers other disposal alternatives.

There are also lingering questions about the viability of the converted fuel, known as mixed-oxide or MOX fuel. Duke Energy had to abort a test of MOX fuel at its Catawba reactor in South Carolina in 2008 after noticing unusual physical changes in fuel assemblies that could create a safety hazard. Last year the Tennessee Valley Authority said it would delay a decision on using MOX fuel in its reactors until DOE makes a final decision on plutonium disposal.

'Disenfranchised from the debate'

Residents living near the Savannah River Site have long raised concerns that the decision to stockpile plutonium and spent nuclear fuel there — and how that decision was made — represent an environmental injustice against people of color and the poor.

In 2002, Savannah-based Citizens for Environmental Justice reviewed the federal government's environmental impact statement for the various sites considered for the plutonium program. The review was done for the Community Alliance on Savannah River Site, which includes Blackville and Beaufort, South Carolina, and Augusta, Keysville and Savannah, Georgia. It stated:

The decision to take back foreign spent nuclear fuel and to dispose of plutonium has been debated for several years without the active participation and integral involvement of people of color living near the Savannah River Site. These communities feel that they have been disenfranchised from the debate, the public involvement activities and the decision making process. Therefore they are left to wonder what the receipt of the spent nuclear fuel rods and disposition of plutonium will mean for their neighborhoods.

Among the racial and economic disparities documented in the review:

* The percentage of minority populations residing within 10 miles of the port used for shipments to the Savannah River Site exceeds the percentage of minority populations residing in the state, with African Americans accounting for most of those minorities.

* The population living along trucking routes from the port to the Savannah River Site is disproportionately minority and low-income.

* The Savannah River Site has the largest percentage of minorities living in the surrounding area of all the sites the government considered for the plutonium program.

* The area around the Savannah River Site's plutonium facility has a greater concentration of minority residents and residents living in poverty than Georgia and South Carolina overall.

"The primary sentiment in the affected minority community is that the voices of the business community and pro-nuclear forces had won their campaign to bring the plutonium disposition mission to Savannah River Site without any sensitivity to community residents who may have lacked an understanding of 1. the issues, 2. the potential danger and 3. the possible impacts to the environment, ecology and their health," the review stated.

It also noted area residents' concern that the government "took advantage of people in the Southeast" because they were less informed than residents living near potential sites in other regions.

The threats nearby residents face from activities at the Savannah River Site are not merely theoretical. For example, a 2004 report by the nonprofit Institute for Energy and Environmental Research found that past waste dumping, mismanagement and failure to implement an appropriate cleanup plan have created extensive water pollution at the site that represents a serious risk to the region's water resources, including the Savannah River, which faces numerous additional toxic threats from industrial pollution.

The most common groundwater pollutant at the Savannah River Site is tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that presents a particular risk to developing fetuses. Rainfall as well as groundwater in parts of Georgia across the river from the site are contaminated with tritium from operations there. In addition, many people rely on the tritium-contaminated Savannah River for subsistence fishing, and they are disproportionately African-American.

Savannah River Site Watch points out that the shipment of plutonium now heading for South Carolina fails to address the larger problem of Japan continuing to stockpile plutonium at home as well as at reprocessing plants in France and the U.K. It also accuses the U.S. government of doing a poor job of explaining why the plutonium is being taken to South Carolina.

The group is calling on the U.S. to reassess its approach to dealing with the international nuclear proliferation threat and to reevaluate the cooperation agreement with Japan when it's up for renegotiation in 2018.