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The Planet

'Low-Level' Waste--High Risk, Getting Closer

State of the States

The Planet, December 1995, Volume 2, number 9

by Tom Perlic South Carolina Chapter Director

Most Americans have never given a second thought (or, for that matter, a first) to Barnwell County, a poor farming region of 20,000 in south-central South Carolina. The county's low profile is something it shares with "low level" nuclear waste, its major import -- and the reason Barnwell deserves our undivided attention.

Barnwell County is where America stores its radioactive garbage. Since 1971, a Waste Management Inc. subsidiary called Chem-Nuclear has operated a so-called low-level radioactive waste dump here, burying practically anything that glows -- spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants being the notable exception -- in a hole in the ground. The hole is just 18 feet above the water table, and just about 15 miles from the Savannah River, a major source of drinking water for residents of both South Carolina and Georgia. In old, unenlightened days, trucks simply backed up to the landfill and dumped their toxic cargo willy-nilly into the ground.

Today, things are different: The barrels are stacked before burial.

Despite the obvious dangers inherent in having tritium, cobalt 60 and other radioactive materials leak into its groundwater, Barnwell County is happy to be the final resting place for the nation's nuclear trash. And the rest of us -- residents of the 37 states that patronize its 240-acre toxic landfill -- may be just as happy that we don't have to worry about disposal.

Except that we do. There are three basic problems with dumping our low-level nuclear waste on Barnwell.

  • First, "low level" is a misnomer. The nuclear industry would have you believe that what it calls LLRW, or low-level radioactive waste, applies only to medical supplies. In fact, the category includes intensely radioactive industrial and nuclear-power reactor utility waste. The major source of LLRW is nuclear power plants.
  • Second, "disposal" is a fantasy. There's no way at present to dispose of LLRW, safely or otherwise. The stuff can only be stored and watched over, some of it for thousands of years, in order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from damaging exposure. There's only one sane response to radioactive waste. Stop generating it to begin with.
  • Third, Barnwell is closer than you think. In 1987, Congress mandated that each state "shall be responsible for providing, either by itself or in cooperation with other states, for the disposal" of all wastes legally classified as LLRW. Since then, groups of states have formed "compacts" in which one state would handle nuclear garbage from others in its compact.

The compact system, however, never really got off the ground, and is currently imploding amid charges and recriminations.

And since Barnwell can't forever remain our lone radioactive dump, it may soon be every state for itself.

Of course, even the status quo is fraught with peril for the rest of the country. Is it safer to have a nuclear waste dump in your state, or to have your homegrown radioactive garbage -- or some other state's, for that matter -- stored where it's generated or trucked to South Carolina along the highway that runs through your town?

So-called low-level radioactive waste threatens everyone, no matter where they live. In South Carolina -- 75 percent of whose residents want Barnwell closed -- the Sierra Club has asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the legality of recent legislation, tacked onto the budget bill, to keep the dump open. One way or another, we hope eventually to put a halt to this environmental and public-health threat to this part of the world.

But Club activists and environmentalists everywhere should pay close attention to the struggle here in South Carolina. No matter which way the Supreme Court rules, we can't keep burying the problem of nuclear waste in Barnwell County.


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