Plans to ship decades-old weapons waste from South Carolina's Savannah River Site are on hold still as the underground nuclear waste dump in New Mexico that was to be its home remains shuttered indefinitely a month after a mysterious radioactive leak stopped shipments from sites nationwide.
The leak at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant raises new questions over another multibillion-dollar disposal site shut down in the American desert: Yucca Mountain.
At one point, a unanimous, bipartisan South Carolina congressional delegation was in agreement that Yucca — an abandoned $15 billion project in southern Nevada that has been frozen without funding for years now - was the best option to dispose of waste stockpiling at commercial reactors like the Upstate's Oconee Nuclear Station.
However, the delegation's lone Democrat — U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Orangeburg — shifted his stance last summer, saying that in the absence of Yucca being a viable option, leaders should look toward the success of New Mexico's pilot plant that has served as a test run of sorts for geologic disposal.
In response to recent questions by The Greenville News on his stance after the New Mexico leak on Feb. 14 that forced the U.S. Department of Energy to ban workers from the site, Clyburn's office issued a statement.
The statement didn't address his past support for New Mexico's pilot plant but indicated support for a permanent disposal site other than Yucca Mountain.
"The Department of Energy is evaluating and assessing the situation in New Mexico and assessing its impact on SRS," Clyburn said in the statement. "I still believe alternative storage sites should be identified as Yucca Mountain is not currently a viable option."
For environmentalists skeptical of nuclear energy, the incident in New Mexico stands as evidence that geologic disposal akin to the Yucca Mountain project is too risky.
"The situation clearly shows there are unanticipated hazards lurking anytime you put nuclear waste inside a geologic facility," said Tom Clements, a Columbia-based nuclear adviser to the South Carolina Sierra Club.
"It may be better in the medium term to keep this material above ground until scientific methods of disposal are improved."
However, South Carolina Republicans point to the incident as proof that Yucca Mountain should be the permanent solution after decades of development and billions of dollars spent.
"This incident actually serves as a prime example for why we need to open up Yucca Mountain," U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan of Laurens said.
"Part of the reason why Yucca was selected as the best location for storing nuclear materials was because of its unique geological features that protect against rare instance of leaks like this one."
Republican U.S. Sen. Tim Scott said the Yucca Mountain project has been tied up by President Barack Obama and powerful Nevada U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who have "ignored the law of the land" and blocked the project's completion.
"This underscores the importance of constructing a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain," Scott said.
A spokesman for Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said that Graham "has long supported Yucca Mountain," which he said is "a big issue for South Carolina."
Allison M. Macfarlane, Obama's U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, a longtime critic of burying waste at Yucca Mountain, wrote in "Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation's High-Level Nuclear Waste," a 2006 collection of articles, that "It is almost impossible to decipher the detailed history of a rock, let alone predict reactions into the geologic future," and that "Geology has not advanced far enough yet to expect that it can do this for the rocks of Yucca Mountain," The New York Timesreported.
The Senate confirmed Macfarlane as NRC chairman in 2012 and reconfirmed her in 2013 for a five-year term.
The Yucca Mountain project has been entangled in politics since its inception in the 1980s, when the Department of Energy contracted with nuclear utilities to permanently dispose of commercial spent fuel.
The government didn't follow through and has lost numerous lawsuits and millions of dollars since it dug tunnels into the mountain and left them abandoned and the project unfunded, except for about $11 million remaining.
Last fall, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the NRC to spend the remaining $11 million, because lawmakers never passed legislation officially killing the project.
Republicans said the NRC should spend the money to complete studies that show the project is scientifically sound. The NRC said the money isn't enough.
Last month, the NRC declined to seek a U.S. Supreme Court hearing to overturn the appeals court's decision.
The New Mexico disposal site was developed in contrast to Yucca Mountain, with acceptance from political leaders under the framework of a consent-based approach.
The facility opened in 1999 as the home for so-called "transuranic waste," the plutonium-laced byproducts of weapon production that are heavier than uranium and often come in the form of rags, tools and lab equipment.
Most of the waste can be safely handled and is less radioactive than spent reactor fuel, but nonetheless remains radioactive for thousands of years.
The New Mexico site has been held up as a potential model for the larger dilemma of disposing of higher-level commercial waste, which is currently being stored in deep pools and in concrete casks on reactor sites.
The site accepts transuranic waste from various Cold War-era nuclear weapons complexes across the country, burying waste more than 2,000 feet underground on salt beds of an ancient sea.
However, the Feb. 14 leak — which the Department of Energy has said left 13 workers with small traces of radiation — has put all shipments on hold, including shipments from the Savannah River Site.
How long the site will be closed is uncertain, but efforts have been under way to send protected workers back into the mine to assess the situation and determine a cause, said Jim Giusti, an SRS spokesman.
"We're just glad they're able to re-enter the mine, because that represents progress for us," Giusti said.
SRS has shipped 12,000 cubic meters of transuranic waste to the New Mexico site since 2001 and has 600 cubic meters left, which Giusti said SRS can safely store. The goal had been to have all transuranic waste shipped to New Mexico by the end of 2015.
"It's a minor impact for us," he said. "It might be more significant for other sites. What's left is a small amount compared to what we had."
The leak at the New Mexico facility occurred about two weeks after a separate incident in which a truck carrying a salt load underground caught fire.