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A green Savannah River, long after St. Paddy's Day?

Feds say plan to turn nukes into fuel is flawed


November has been a roller coaster month for the company that wants to build the first plant that will turn weapons-grade plutonium -- easily some of the nastiest stuff mankind has ever concocted -- into a milder, safer fuel that can be used in nuclear power plants. The fuel, made from mixtures of uranium and plutonium oxides, is called MOX.

Two weeks ago, Congress approved $402 million for Duke Cogema Stone & Webster to begin phase one construction of its proposed MOX plant at the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site.

Obviously, the lawmakers who approved that massive expenditure weren't aware that the U.S. Department of Energy sent a letter to Duke Cogema Nov. 3 telling the company that it would have to redo its plant design "as a matter of safety and good business."

The DOE had a problem with some of Duke Cogema's estimates on radiation risks in and around the MOX plant. The company gave the DOE numbers for radiation levels miles away from the plant, and didn't include estimates for levels just outside the plant. Oops. Some folks, namely the crews working in and around the plant, might want to know that kind of thing.

Duke Cogema was "basically using a trick to show that the radiation exposure to a person standing at the [plant] would meet regulation," says Greenpeace International's Tom Clements. "The DOE has not accepted this trick and has forced them to do their calculations right outside the facility, and this could lead to redesign of the plan, and is certainly going to delay the whole program by many months, according to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]."

Neither the DOE nor Duke Cogema have said exactly how long the redesign will delay construction, or how much more money it will cost.

Yet, the setback turns up the heat on an issue that's been controversial from its inception, and it hasn't been one of the typical powers-that-be versus tree-hugging, anti-nuke activists.

DOE's plan to make MOX at the Savannah River Site has led to several scuffles between Southern officials and the agency, the most notable coming in 2002, when South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges said he would lie down in the middle of the road to keep trucks carrying high-grade plutonium destined for the Savannah River Site from entering his state.

Hodges lost that round.

Right now, Georgia officials are going back and forth with the DOE over a program that monitors how much radioactive pollution from the site makes its way into Georgia waters.

Besides being the future home of the country's first MOX plant, the Savannah River Site also stores one of the world's largest deposits of plutonium, yummy leftovers from the Cold War. Plutonium, by the way, is the stuff that's refined and ready for nuclear warheads, as opposed to uranium, which would need processing to do any real damage.

About 35 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste is also stored there. But what's caused the current tiff between Georgia and the DOE is a gas called tritium.

Tritium, according to Clements is "radioactive gas that's used in all nuclear weapons to boost explosive power of the weapons. It's also the gas that makes the thermonuclear bomb possible."

Tritium has shown up in ground-water supplies in Georgia, and state Environmental Protection Division inspectors have found tritium levels in fish tissue to be 15 to 90 times normal, though still within safe levels. Other radioactive particles, specifically cesium-137 and strontium-90, were elevated in fish from the Savannah River, also within safety guidelines.

The bad news is that DOE officials recently told EPD that they would no longer be giving Georgia the money to monitor tritium levels.

In a Nov. 10 letter to Natural Resources Commissioner Lonice Barret, EPD Assistant Director David Word wrote that without the DOE money, seven staffers who monitor radiation levels in the state could lose their jobs.

Word also wrote, "These reductions would affect not only our efforts around SRS [the Savannah River Site], but also our monitoring and emergency response capabilities around all other nuclear facilities, and potentially our ability to perform radiochemical analyses pursuant to the Safe Drinking Water Act."

DOE officials, according to the letter, contend that the funds for radioactivity monitoring was just seed money, until the state could get its own program up and running.

But the fight ain't over yet. EPD has asked Gov. Sonny Perdue's office to help keep the DOE monitoring money in place.

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