Energy Dept. budget amendment puts Savannah River water at risk
Past performance of grout indicates it may not adequately contain waste, creating risk of irreparable river pollution beyond drinking water limits
Takoma Park, MD, May 17, 2004: A new analysis by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) concludes that a Senate budget amendment allowing the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to abandon highly radioactive wastes in tanks next to the Savannah River poses severe risks for the environment and public health. DOE wants to attempt to grout, or cement, residual wastes in place rather than spend additional funds to pump them out.
According to IEER President, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, “Calculations show that if only ten percent of the strontium-90 presently in the tank farms at the Savannah River Site were left behind and grouted, the grout would have to work nearly perfectly for hundreds of years to prevent the Savannah River from becoming polluted above the present Safe Drinking Water limit. There is no experience with grout that can allow containment projections of this magnitude. On the contrary, experience with grout so far has been unsatisfactory.”
Leakage of even a small fraction of the strontium-90 at Savannah River Site (SRS) into the Savannah River could be disastrous, environmentally and economically.
“In 1991, major economic damage occurred when the drinking water standard for the Savannah River was exceeded for only a few days due to a tritium leak,” Makhijani noted, “even though the standard is calculated as an annual average and there was no annual violation.”
Strontium-90 is just one of the radioactive contaminants DOE hopes to leave in SRS waste tanks. They also contain large amounts of cesium-137, plutonium-238 and americium-241.
“If only ten percent of the plutonium-238 was left behind the tanks and covered with six feet of grout, the residual radioactivity would exceed the limit for low-level wastes by about ten times,” Makhijani added. “This plan would convert SRS into a vast high-level radioactive waste dump in the watershed of the Savannah River.”
Makhijani concluded that if the grout fails, South Carolina and Georgia would likely have to write off one of their most precious water resources.
“The performance of the grout would have to be such that leakage would remain at one part in 100,000 per year or better for a hundred years or more,” stated Makhijani. “If the grout fails to meet this test, the river may have to be written off for drinking water use. This is because once the tanks are grouted, it will be essentially impossible to go back and clean them out.”
Makhijani continued: “The resultant health, economic and ecological harm would be incalculable-far greater than any benefit from shortening the cleanup period for SRS or reducing high-level waste management expenditures. Nothing less than the future of the Savannah River is at stake.”
A recent IEER report, “Nuclear Dumps by the Riverside,” documented environmental threats from radioactive wastes at DOE’s Savannah River site. The report concluded that “capping or grouting the wastes in place compounds the risks.” A statement by Dr. Makhijani is available here, along with excerpts from the IEER report on the subject of grout performance.