The Energy Department began cleaning up an environmental nightmare at the old Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant here in 1996 and promised a bright future: Within a quarter-century, officials said, they would turn liquid radioactive bomb waste into a solid that could not spill or dissolve.
By the time the wastes have been vitrified, perhaps our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, will have already prepared a long term burial site. But given the track record, what are the odds?But 17 years later, the department has slowed the work to a pace that makes completion of the cleanup by the projected date of 2023 highly unlikely. Energy officials now say the work will not be done until well into the 2040s, when the aging underground tanks that hold the bomb waste in the South Carolina lowlands will be 90 years old.“I don’t know what the tanks’ design life was intended to be, but it’s not for infinity,” the state’s chief environmental official, Catherine B. Templeton, said in an interview.The slowdown has set off a fierce battle between the Energy Department and South Carolina, where officials say they have been double-crossed in what they view as the state’s biggest environmental threat. In an unusual display of resistance from a state that was host to a major part of the Cold War effort to make nuclear weapons — and is now home to most of the resulting radioactive waste — South Carolina is threatening to impose $154 million in fines on the federal government for failing to meet its promised schedule.Energy Department officials counter that the slowdown is a temporary effect of budget stringency in Washington and that Congress has tied their hands. A combination of the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration and a 2011 cap on military spending — of which the environmental cleanup is technically part — do not leave them with enough money to meet their commitments, they say.“There’s only so much to go around,” said Terrel J. Spears, the Energy Department’s assistant manager for waste disposition here. “We can’t increase the budgets. Now we have to balance the budgets.”Energy officials acknowledge, however, that for each additional year the waste stays in the tanks, they will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on maintenance and security.In South Carolina’s reckoning, some of the money that should be spent on Savannah is going to a factory that the Energy Department is trying to finish at its Hanford nuclear reservation, near Richland, Wash., to process similar wastes there. But those wastes are more complex, and contractors have faced even tougher technical problems. That schedule has slipped repeatedly.