South Carolina, the Nuclear Heart of the Nuclear South

Mary T. Kelly, Ph.D. Assoc. Director, LWVSC


League of Women Voters: South Carolina

The Future of SRS:

          Now that Energy Solutions, the current owner of the Chem Nuclear site seems to have given up attempts to keep the Barnwell site open beyond the 2008 closure date for states that are not members of the Atlantic Compact – members are New Jersey, Connecticut as well as South Carolina) it is more than time to focus on the far more radiologically dangerous Savannah River Site and the Bush administration’s multi-faceted plans for that site.                  

    According to a well documented report by Bob Alvarez, a highly respected nuclear scientist who served at a high level in the Department of Energy (DOE) during the Clinton administration and is now with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Savannah River Site in terms of curies is now the most contaminated site in the federal system, with about four and a half times the level of the next contender, the Hanford Site. A curie is a measure of radioactivity and is related to the impact on health.  Both sites reprocessed spent fuel rods to extract plutonium for weapons. That report, which is highly critical of the proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) can be downloaded at

           GNEP, which was discussed in a previous SC VOTER, is a plan to provide nuclear fuel to developing nations for reactors for energy.  They would then be obligated to return the spent fuel rods lest the spent fuel rods be used to extract plutonium and hence manufacture weapons. The spent fuel rods would all be reprocessed at SRS as would the spent fuel rods from U.S. reactors, converted into new fuel rods and the cycle repeated. We would in effect be transitioning form uranium to a plutonium based reactor fuel. There are many flaws in the plan not the least of which is the fact that much of the technology involved has yet to be developed. Critics point to the fact that Pakistan and India were able to make nuclear weapons by extracting plutonium from spent reactor fuel. The N. Korea threat is supposedly under control but  Iran is still threatening to do so. Other flaws include the renewed accumulation of liquid reprocessing waste while we are still trying to cope with the remaining forty-eight tanks of high level reprocessing waste still at SRS from the Cold War. All of this poses a threat to ground water and to the Savannah River.

           Meanwhile, federal sites throughout the country are in the process of closure and sending waste plutonium to SRS, ground has been broken for the MOX factory which is to use some 34 tons of plutonium from surplus weaponry supposedly in concert with Russia, to manufacture fuel rods for commercial reactors, and the there are proposals for Bombplex 2030 which would remanufacture part of the existing weapons stock into a new breed of smaller, more usable weapons, more likely to be used as a first strike option. The MOX plant is still unlicensed and is being challenged in court by a group of organizations including the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Nuclear Watch South and WAND. Such law suits, even if they fail can often change the terms of a license for the better. 

           Another current proposal about which meetings were held recently is the importation of Greater than Class C waste (GTCC) which would go to either SRS or Barnwell and maybe both. If you have forgotten low level waste is defined not by its radiological properties in terms of curies but what it is not.  It is not spent fuel rods from civilian or military reactors nor high level liquid reprocessing waste such as in the old tanks up at SRS.  Chem Nuclear in Barnwell County now takes Class A, B and C waste, the only commercial site in the US to take all three. The highest level C includes decommissioned nuclear reactors.  Greater that Class C is more radiologically dangerous than the reactors themselves from which presumably the Greater Than Class C has been removed.  Despite the fact that old reactors are being relicensed many will be decommissioned in the coming years because like anything mechanical they do wear out and become uneconomical aside from dangerous. It also includes sealed radioactive source, many used for medical purposes.

           The League of Women Voters US has a number of clear cut positions in opposition to most of these plans.  We urge you to review the sections on Public Participation, Natural Resources, Energy and Arms Control and Defense Spending in the LWVUS publication IMPACT ON ISSUES 2006-2008. 

 New Reactors for South Carolina:


           The current administration also has ambitious plans for the revival of nuclear energy, supposedly as a non-carbon emitting answer to global warming. In South Carolina the process for building new commercial reactors has already begun with informational meetings held by the Nuclear Regulatory meetings in Winnsboro and in Gaffney.  Both SCE&G and Duke are proposing two new reactors each for existing sites, the V.C. Summer nuclear plant site in Fairfield County and the Cherokee site near Gaffney. It should be recalled that a nuclear reactor was built at the Cherokee site but never operated.  The cooling pond was the location used for the underwater scenes in the movie “The Abyss”. Much of this activity is propelled by generous federal subsidies without which new plants would never be built. Wall St. doesn’t view them as an acceptable risk.  

            Opponents of nuclear as a panacea for climate change point to the need to examine the whole of the nuclear fuel cycle, from mining and processing uranium for fuel to manufacture of the fuel rods themselves. Although a new generation of nuclear plants is being touted, the first to be built will use existing technology, hopefully with improved safety features. In Georgia, the Southern Company is further along with the process with plans to build new reactors along the Savannah River at the Vogtle site, which has implications for water quality and temperature of that river.  A legal challenge is being pursued by a number of environmental groups.

            Nuclear plants use large quantities of water for cooling which is then returned to the source at higher temperatures than on withdrawal. In Europe some reactors have had to be shut down during summer heat, the time of greatest demand, because of elevated water temperatures.

            Although the Savannah is a mighty river its resources are being challenged by the demands of the existing and proposed commercial reactors, existing and future discharges from SRS and the needs of manufacturers along that river.  Lest we forget, this river is a source of drinking water for many.  

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