With renewed efforts to reopen the Barnwell nuclear waste site, we are getting some questions about the site and how we got to where are now. I’ll try to boil it down to a few key points.
The Barnwell Site is a landfill for radioactive waste. The State of South Carolina owns the site, and leases it to Chem-Nuclear to operate.
The General Assembly passed the Atlantic Compact Law in 2000 to close Barnwell to waste from states that were not part of the compact in 2008, leaving the site open only to South Carolina, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Chem-Nuclear, waste generators, conservationists and elected officials from Barnwell County all agreed on this reasonable compromise to deal with nuclear waste. The site closed to the nation’s use on July 1, 2008.
South Carolina took more than its fair share when 99% of the nation’s most radioactive commercial, low level waste was buried at Barnwell before the site restricted its use in 2008. Barnwell takes the more radioactive “B” and “C” waste, as well as the bulkier “A” waste, however, all “low level waste (LLW)” is dangerous. An underground plume of radioactive tritium has been detected, and levels above the safe drinking water standard have been found in Mary’s Branch, a tributary of the Savannah River.
There are many ways to keep Chem-Nuclear solvent including increasing disposal rates. The site now employs roughly 22 employees and costs about $6 million per year to run, and the compact guaranteed Chem-Nuclear a 29% profit. Attempting to increase revenues by swapping less toxic “A” waste for more lucrative and more radioactive “B” and “C” material is a bad bargain for our state and our Compact partners. One million cubic feet of available space remains, and generators have reduced the volume of their waste to about 8,000 cubic feet per year, but the projections did not include waste from new reactors, such as SCE&G’s new reactors in Fairfield County. Although $147 million has been set aside in an Extended Care Fund, we should re-calculate whether this amount is sufficient for long term monitoring after final closure.
More radioactive waste means more risk to our sources of drinking water. Barnwell’s location on top of a major aquifer and beside the Savannah River puts the entire basin at risk. Such risk requires constant vigilance to keep our sources of drinking water safe. In 2014, the SC Court of Appeals cited Chem-Nuclear for taking “no action” to prevent rainwater from falling onto the site’s active trenches. Why should we bring more waste to a site that is managed in such a way?
Re-opening Barnwell to out-of-Compact waste would revive SC’s reputation as the nation’s “pay toilet.” In poll after poll, South Carolinians say that nuclear waste should not be a growth industry for our state. We should not build our economy by letting other states dump their waste on us.
The history is complex, but our position is straightforward: Conservation Voters opposes any amendment to the historic Atlantic Compact agreement which protects South Carolina from being used as the nation’s nuclear waste dump. Changing Compact terms violates the spirit of the agreement.