More Data Sought on SRS Cleanup Research to Stall Project till 2001

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WASHINGTON -- A proposal to begin cleaning up nuclear waste immediately at the Savannah River Site might not be the safest or cheapest option, according to a study released yesterday by the National Research Council.

The less-than-glowing report, written by an independent committee of experts at the request of the Department of Energy, will stall the cleanup project at least several months while more research is done.

However, the committee contends the additional time and money necessary for more research is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of building a $1 billion disposal facility that doesn't work.

Officials at the department said they weren't surprised by the conclusions, in part because they had read the committee's interim report in October that detailed the highlights.

As a result, the department will implement nearly all of the recommendations, and it won't pick a disposal plan until next summer at the earliest.

"It has been said we're slowing down," said Carolyn Huntoon, assistant secretary for environmental management at the Department of Energy. "But you know, if you have technical uncertainty, you don't want to build a plant to process something when you don't know exactly what you're doing."

The Savannah River Site, in Aiken, S.C., and adjacent to Augusta on the Georgia border, was established in 1950 to produce isotopes, mainly plutonium and tritium, for defense purposes.

Over the years, liquid and solid wastes have been stored in 48 underground storage tanks at the site. Currently, much of the solid waste -- or sludge -- is being removed and transformed into glass for storage in a geological repository.

However, some of the most radioactive portions -- including cesium and plutonium -- still exist in the bottom of the tanks. …