Barnwell: Achilles Heel of Nuclear Power

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.

What responsibility does the nuclear industry bear for its wastes? Where does federal responsibility begin? What role do taxpayers play in public policy decisions about radioactive wastes and nuclear energy? 

These are some of the fundamental questions citizens in South Carolina are beginning to ask. Once noted for their blind faith in nuclear technocrats, South Carolinians are now leading the nation in challenging the nuclear industry’s latest effort to get taxpayers to subsidize a plan for solving its high-level waste problems. 

At the center of the controversy is the Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant (BNFP), a partially completed commercial spent fuel reprocessing complex built by Allied General Nuclear Services (AGNS) — a consortium of Allied Chemical, Gulf Oil and Royal Dutch Shell. For 10 years, AGNS has touted BNFP as a simple solution to the problem of where to dispose of commercial high-level nuclear wastes, namely spent fuel rods. The fuel rods that power today’s light-water reactors must be removed after roughly three years. These removed rods are highly radioactive and must be stored carefully for thousands of years. But by reprocessing these spent fuel rods — extracting the still-usable uranium and plutonium — the nuclear industry could refabricate these materials into fuel for light-water reactors or the proposed breeder reactors, and theoretically reduce the volume of radioactive wastes it must store. 

Promoters of nuclear power assert that reprocessing is a safe, technically feasible and economical technique. But numerous unanswered questions remain concerning the Barnwell plant’s operations, particularly the still untested effects of BFNP’s routine radiation emissions on its employees and the surrounding community. Two facilities vital to the plant’s operations have yet to be designed (see sidebar), and indications are that they will not be operable for years. In 1977, President Carter declared a moratorium on reprocessing due to concern that inventories of plutonium, a product of reprocessing, could become a tool for terrorism. 

Finally, the economics of the plant are highly questionable. As licensing proceedings lagged and more concern about the plant’s operations arose, AGNS officials quietly encouraged the federal government to relieve them of their financial risk by purchasing the plant and operating it as a federal facility. They and other industry representatives claim the federal government has an obligation to help, and brand President Carter and the plant’s many opponents as irresponsible Luddites. 

Three presidents — Nixon, Ford and Carter — have declined the offer to buy the Barnwell plant. But Congress has subsidized the plant to the tune of $40 million for the past three years. In exchange, AGNS has performed paperwork studies to investigate some of the peripheral problems involved in commercializing plutonium as a fuel. One critic comments that AGNS “keeps reinventing the wheel” in exchange for the federal subsidy. 

Now there is serious debate — in both Congress and South Carolina — about AGNS’ latest proposal: for $497 million the federal government could purchase the Barnwell plant, which would give it the opportunity of reprocessing commercial spent fuel rods at some point in the future, but more immediately would offer away-from-reactor (AFR) storage capacity for the spent fuel rods that are piling up in reactors across the country. This plan has provoked increased public opposition, both because studies have shown that AFR storage is not needed for a number of years and because many people feel that locating AFR storage at the Barnwell plant would make fuel reprocessing, and its corollary plutonium production, an inevitability within a few more years. 

The central question remains: why spend public money to renovate a plant which even the Wall Street Journal brands a “white elephant?” 


Barnwell: A Brief History 

South Carolina politicians have long been anxious to find a modern industrial base for the state’s economy. By the late 1960s, nuclear power was already becoming part of that longed-for base. The massive Savannah River Plant employed 8,000 people and tripled the population of Aiken, South Carolina, in less than two decades. The state’s three private electric utilities constructed an experimental reactor in Parr, South Carolina, in 1962; in 1968, Carolina Power & Light was finishing its Robinson reactor in Hartsville, and Duke Power was ready to begin its Oconee reactors west of Clemson. Westinghouse had opened the world’s largest uranium fuel fabrication plant in Columbia, and Chem-Nuclear Systems was searching for a site for a low-level waste repository. The addition of a reprocessing facility would certify South Carolina as the center of the world’s nuclear industry. 

Barnwell County, 60 miles southwest of Columbia near the South Carolina-Georgia border, remained an agrarian area with persistent unemployment. Officials sought new industrial facilities to bring jobs to the area and growth to the economy. When AGNS expressed interest in South Carolina, Barnwell’s politicians laid out the welcome mat. 

These men were among the most powerful in South Carolina. Area legislators Edgar Brown, president of the South Carolina Senate, and Sol Blatt, the Speaker of the House, combined over 80 years of political savvy. The federal connection was there as well: Senator Strom Thurmond hails from the Barnwell area. The influence of these men, coupled with the state’s ambition to become the world’s nuclear capitol, were powerful assets in persuading AGNS to move to South Carolina. 

AGNS courted additional support among South Carolina’s political hierarchy. Two members of the State Development Board, who were former employees of the nuclear industry in other states, promoted the plant to the state officials and assisted in negotiations for a plant site. They were later rewarded for their efforts: one went to work for AGNS and the other joined Chem-Nuclear Systems, operator of the low-level waste site adjacent to BNFP. A third member of the board later opened a public relations firm in Columbia; his biggest client was Allied General Nuclear Services. 

In 1968, AGNS signed a contract to purchase a tract of land which the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had deeded to Barnwell County. Most of this land had been condemned during the 1950s as part of the territory for the Savannah River Plant; AGNS also bought a parcel of land from a local farmer. 

The only remaining obstacle was federal approval for the plant. In 1970, the AEC held a two-day hearing in Barnwell on the BNFP construction license. The hearing satisfied AEC standards, but it did not comply with the new review standards required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 because it failed to consider three important factors: the adverse environmental impact of the plant and its products, available strategies to reduce these effects and a cost-benefit analysis of the BNFP. Despite these shortcomings, the AEC granted a construction license in December, 1971, and AGNS held formal groundbreaking ceremonies. 

Barnwell Plant Operations 

The Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant is designed to reprocess spent fuel rods from about 50 reactors per year. By extracting uranium-235 and plutonium isotopes from spent fuel rods and refabricating them into new fuel rods, the original energy-producing capacity of the uranium can be theoretically extended by about 30 percent. 

If the BNFP is completed according to the original plan, it would consist of five major facilities, each with a specialized role in the reprocessing operation. Three of the facilities are essentially completed now, although they still lack any valid license. The remaining two haven’t yet been designed.

 • At the completed Fuel Receiving and Storage Facility, workers would unload spent fuel rods and place them in stainless-steel-lined pools. Spent fuel rods are currently stored in smaller pools at the reactor sites in which they have been used. If BNFP is licensed, the rods will be shipped into BNFP and stored in the fuel facility to await reprocessing. This facility can store the spent fuel rods from about 13 reactors. The U.S. Department of Energy has seriously considered storing wastes from foreign countries at this site. AGNS has been proposing for the last five years that existing spent fuel from commercial reactors be stored away from the reactors at the receiving and storage facility; the Carter administration is now carefully weighing this proposal. 

• The Separations Facility (already built) would process waste fuel from about 50 reactors per year. The fuel rods would be transferred from the storage and receiving area, and chopped into short pieces to expose the uranium oxide, plutonium oxide and fission products. A hot nitric acid leaching process (the “Purex” process) would remove these materials from the chopped tubing hulls; they would then be separated from each other by a solvent extraction system, and be available for use in new fuel rods. (The nitric acid would theoretically be recovered and used again.) The process would produce both high- and low-level radioactive wastes; the high-level liquid wastes would be stored in stainless steel storage tanks inside underground concrete vaults at the plant. The chopped tubing hulls would be temporarily stored on-site.

 • The Uranium Hexafluoride Facility is also constructed. It would receive uranium from the separations facility in a liquid form and convert it into a powder. The powdered uranium could then be shipped away to an enrichment facility. If enrichment of the reclaimed uranium is technically and economically feasible, the enriched uranium could be fabricated into fuel rods for existing reactors. However, reclaimed uranium has thus far proven very troublesome to enrich. 

Two additional facilities vital to the BNFP reprocessing operation have not yet been designed or constructed, although they are legally required before the plant can operate. The uncertainties surrounding the treatment of reclaimed plutonium and of separation wastes make it unlikely that these last two facilities can be built any time soon.

 • The Plutonium Product Facility would convert liquid plutonium into a solid. AGNS would then ship the plutonium to other companies, most likely Westinghouse, who would fabricate the plutonium into a fuel for either light-water reactors or breeder reactors. Until the facility is operable, the reclaimed liquid plutonium from the separations facility would be stored in tanks at the BNFP.

 • The as-yet undesignated Waste Solidification Facility would convert high- and intermediate-level liquid wastes from the separations facility into a glasseous solid for shipment to long-term storage at a federal repository. However, no waste solidification technique has yet been refined, no federal repository for wastes has been identified or developed, and so far less than one percent of the country’s high-level liquid waste has been solidified. During the NEPA hearings, AGNS officials admitted that they had not yet conducted even preliminary engineering studies on the solidification facility. Environmental impact projections have been based on experience with small research and development prototypes. Until this facility is operable, the separations-produced liquid wastes would be stored in tanks at the BNFP. Federal regulations require that wastes be solidified within five years of separation, but it is likely that the NRC would waive these regulations, since solidification is not yet feasible. 

AGNS plans no permanent waste storage facility at the site; all wastes will be handled on an interim basis. The company would store all materials retrievably to permit treatment and eventual transfer to a federal repository. However, it is unlikely that any full-scale federal repository will be operating until the 1990s. Therefore, high-level wastes produced at BNFP would remain on site for a number of years in underground tanks. Tanks at federal military installations and at the now-closed West Valley, New York, reprocessing facility have experienced chronic leakage problems. 

Forty acres of the BNFP site are reserved for temporarily storing the solid wastes produced in the plant. This space would only be sufficient for five years’ wastes; there are no plans for the wastes after this point.


Critics of the plant reacted quickly. Environmentalists, Inc., a Columbiabased organization, requested a series of NEPA-mandated hearings to review the construction license. The AEC warned AGNS that any construction would be at the company’s own financial risk because the license could be revoked as a result of the hearings, but AGNS decided to continue its plans. Plant construction began in 1972, although the NEPA hearings were delayed until 1974. 

The state of South Carolina also took a further look at the plans for the reprocessing plant. In 1971 and 1972, a joint legislative committee held hearings on the plant’s impact on the state’s financial and environmental resources. However, says Ruth Thomas of Environmentalists, Inc., “It wasn’t a fact-finding committee. It was a committee to negate criticism.” The committee heard presentations from the AEC, the Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies and ostensibly independent researchers. But AGNS officials spent hours “briefing” and in some cases even wording testimony for the people from these agencies. Savannah River Plant officials also received a thorough briefing by AGNS before the committee toured that plant. Two informal working groups — one composed of local industries with nuclear interests, the other made up of the governor’s staff and a few committee liaisons — a helped AGNS discredit local critics and assuage the committee’s concerns. 

Consequently, the committee dismissed the idea of investigating, or even touring, Nuclear Fuel Services’ unsuccessful commercial reprocessing venture in West Valley, New York. Vital issues — Price-Anderson liability, the technical feasibility of waste solidification, plant decommissioning 46 received scant attention in the hearings. In the end, with the help of a cooperative committee member, AGNS even edited the final draft of the committee’s report! 

By the time the NEPA hearings finally began two years later, the separations facility was 65 percent completed. AGNS also maneuvered to minimize the effect of these hearings: AGNS president Howard J. Larson went to work for the AEC as Acting Deputy Director for Fuels and Materials of the Directorate of Licensing. His responsibilities included regulating the final use of any product from the Barnwell plant. At the same time, AGNS initiated secret negotiations with the federal government about selling the plant. What had once looked like a profitable investment was turning into an economic and technical nightmare. More formal negotiations concerning this “bailout” effort began in 1975. 

After an intermittent schedule, the NEPA hearings were in effect suspended by AGNS in 1976. President Carter then officially terminated them as part of his reprocessing moratorium in 1977. Among the crucial questions never resolved in the hearings were: Is the plant’s design appropriate; is the site suitable; and is reprocessing itself economically feasible? 


The Federal Bailout 

BNFP’s three completed facilities are now idle. But AGNS officials are aggressively pushing the federal government to buy the plant for just over $360 million. If the federal government agrees, AGNS would get its investment back plus a profit. Presumably, AGNS would then operate the plant on a cost-plus-profit leasing basis, as is done with other federal facilities such as the Savannah River Plant and Oak Ridge National Lab. AGNS vice-president James Buckham claims the federal purchase would be “a bargain for the taxpayers” since the plant could not now be duplicated for the same price. 

So far the federal government has balked at this arrangement; however, the Department of Energy is interested in expanding the fuel storage facility and using it as an away-from-reactor (AFR) storage facility for spent fuel rods from many operating reactors. AGNS claims the expansion could be done for as little as $109 million, compared to the $250 million price tag of completing a brand new facility. But AGNS refuses to sell the storage facility alone; it wants the federal government to buy the entire facility for an overall price of $497 million. Underlying this demand is a self-serving bit of logic: the federal government inevitably will lift its ban on reprocessing; therefore, it should buy the BNFP now and get both storage and reprocessing capabilities in one. 

But is AFR storage even necessary? 

A 1979 General Accounting Office report concludes that DOE greatly exaggerates the need for spent fuel rod storage and that the utilities can provide additional temporary storage at the reactors themselves. Instead of an interim solution for only a portion of the nation’s wastes, the GAO maintains the strongest need is for a waste disposal strategy and the identification of a permanent waste repository site. 

Other issues often neglected in the debate over the bailout should be answered before the federal government invests in BNFP:

 • Will it be economical to utilize the uranium reclaimed in the BNFP separations facility? Even AGNS admits the reclaimed uranium will cost about three times the present market value of uranium; and the comparative price of the reclaimed uranium has risen as rapidly as the price for newly mined uranium.

 • Is using reclaimed uranium even technically possible? Attempts to enrich reclaimed uranium have thus far incurred serious problems.

 • Will the federal government allow the recovered plutonium to be used? AGNS proposes to separate plutonium from the spent fuel rods and store it in bulk quantities at the plant site — making BNFP a target for terrorist activity.

 • Is Barnwell a suitable site for any nuclear facilities? BNFP is located in a high-risk, class 3 earthquake zone and over an aquifer (underground water supply) that will be an important water source for the region for many decades.

 • Should federal regulations on radiation emissions established for future commercial reprocessing plants be enforced at BNFP? The Barnwell plant will routinely emit hundreds of times more radiation than would be allowed at any future reprocessing plant, and in many ways would release more than the accidental radiation release at the Three Mile Island plant.

 • What constitutes a “safe” level of radiation exposure? Over the plant’s projected lifetime, routine emissions of radioactive iodine will accumulate in the surrounding area to levels unacceptable to the NRC. Winds around Barnwell are the most stagnant in the country, so there is little chance for good dispersal of the routine emissions. Full-time employees and many temporary workers will be exposed to the still unknown effects of radiation during routine operations, and particularly during maintenance and repair operations.

 • Will it be economically and technically feasible to solidify the liquid high-level radioactive wastes produced in the separations facility? Solidification of wastes is essential for their safe handling and disposal, but the necessary technology is in a very primitive stage, and the solidification facility for BNFP isn’t even designed. Thus far the U.S. has solidified less than one percent of its liquid high-level wastes, and the solidification program at the Savannah River Plant has been halted. The economics of solidification are also uncertain. The cost of solidifying the wastes at the closed West Valley, New York, reprocessing plant is estimated at half a billion dollars. Barnwell will generate this amount of wastes every six months, and the cost of a new solidification plant alone ranges upwards of half a billion dollars.

 • Where will the wastes be stored? No permanent high-level waste repository will be operating until the 1990s at the earliest.

 • Should South Carolinians continue to bear the risk and expense of monitoring and permanently caring for such a large share of the nation’s nuclear facilities and nuclear wastes? Also, should they face the risks of transportation accidents from the hundreds of shipments which will arrive at BNFP every year?


South Carolinians Fight Back 

Many South Carolinians have been critical of the plant since the first announcements hit the papers. Ruth Thomas of Environmentalists, Inc., says, “The Barnwell Plant would be a radioactive and economic drain on the community [right now] if citizens hadn’t persisted in asking questions. The possibility remains that the government could purchase the plant.... If the Barnwell Plant were to start operations, in just six months we would certainly have a health and financial burden to match that of New York’s [West Valley] plant. Our tax and energy dollars are stretched too taut to waste any more on this experiment. But somehow common sense has never had a significant role in any of the federal decisions regarding the Barnwell plant.” 

Despite their devotion and persistence, many members of Environmentalists, Inc., are now discouraged. The group has received much volunteer legal assistance, but there are still outstanding bills of $5,000 from their prolonged intervention in the NEPA hearings. 

However, in 1978, a new generation of nuclear activists assessed the legal strategy and began focusing on nationwide publicity, local education and thoughtful direct action — including civil disobedience. Some supporters of this new approach had been involved in Environmentalists, Inc., but most were younger. And the new organization — the Palmetto Alliance — branched out from focusing on only the Barnwell plant to opposing nuclear power as a whole. 

The Alliance includes citizens from a wide range of professions, ages, educational backgrounds and political persuasions. This support has formed the base for continued action against the plant. The May, 1978, rally in Barnwell brought out 1,200 demonstrators from around the country, and 285 were arrested for trespassing on the facility’s property in civil disobedience of state law. At the October, 1979, rally and action, 2,500 people demonstrated and 163 were arrested at the BNFP and the two other nuclear facilities in the area, the SRP and Chem-Nuclear. 

Leaders of the Palmetto Alliance feel that BNFP is the Achilles’ Heel of the nuclear industry. Although other waste strategies and reprocessing options seem available, the nuclear industry’s own intractable attitudes about BNFP have locked it into an indefensible position. The survival of Barnwell, is now identified in many places with the survival of the entire industry. 

BNFP supporters remain very active. Former AGNS president Howard Larson is now with the Atomic Industrial Forum, the lobbying and public relations arm of the nuclear industry, and has supported the push for federal takeover. Former Governor Robert McNair has taken an active role in seeking federal subsidies and ultimate federal purchase of BNFP. And, at 83, Barnwell representative and AGNS lawyer Sol Blatt still carries a great deal of influence in the legislature, but his House failed to pass a resolution urging President Carter to lift the ban on reprocessing and open Barnwell. 

Governor Richard Riley has stated repeatedly that the state will no longer be the nuclear dumping ground for the nation. He insists that any new nuclear activities in the state — including AFR storage and new nuclear reactors — will not be approved unless there is a long-range plan for waste disposal. He specifically opposes temporary storage at the Barnwell plant until a permanent federal solution to the waste problem is identified and demonstrated. “South Carolina can no longer be the path of least resistance in seeking the national answer to nuclear waste disposal,” he asserts. 

When the Barnwell Nuclear Fuel Plant was first proposed over 10 years ago, the public still had a certain amount of trust in federal regulatory processes and in the inherent positive value of technology. But the recurrent accidents and the lack of a waste storage program have shaken that faith tremendously, even in strongly pro-nuclear South Carolina. Unless the industry can come up with concrete answers to the still unresolved problems, AGNS officials will find that even the most elaborate public relations program and strong support from South Carolina’s old-line political elite cannot overcome public opposition to a dangerous and unnecessary technological experiment.