A radioactive leak that has indefinitely shut down a New Mexico nuclear waste dump has left South Carolina holding a stockpile of weapons waste that had been scheduled to be shipped westward for disposal by the end of next year.
The plans to ship waste stored at the Savannah River Site are in limbo – and the government isn't prepared yet to talk about what will happen next if the New Mexico underground dump no longer is an option.
The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday it is "evaluating its options" after a mysterious leak two weeks ago at New Mexico's federal Waste Isolation Pilot Plant exposed workers to radiation and shut down operations.
The department said more information will be presented next week.
Nuclear watchdogs say the government should be prompt in sharing information on the future of SRS waste slated for transport and should heed the unexpected leak as evidence not to allow further storage of nuclear spent fuel at SRS.
"Nuclear waste dumps leak — and they leak sooner than the experts predict," said Tom Clements, Columbia-based nuclear adviser to the Sierra Club's chapter in South Carolina. "Obviously this is going to have an impact on operations at Savannah River Site, and they should talk about it."
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday that "we're monitoring and seeing what impact" the New Mexico radiation leak will have on SRS.
The New Mexico facility has been held up as a potential model for how to dispose of nuclear refuse beyond disposal of 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.
While some transuranic waste emits high levels of radiation that require shielding, most can be safely handled so long as its particles aren't inhaled or ingested, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The waste is less radioactive than spent reactor fuel, but nonetheless remains radioactive for thousands of years.
The Savannah River Site is in agreement with the federal government to ship and dispose of South Carolina's transuranic waste in the New Mexico facility.
So far, about 12,000 cubic meters from SRS have disposed in the WIPP facility since 2001, according to a DOE report last May. About 700 cubic meters remain to be disposed, the report said.
The report said that the last transuranic waste shipment would occur by the end of 2015 if enough funds were allocated.
The DOE has raised the possibility, also, that New Mexico facility could be a permanent home for higher-level liquid waste from generating sites that have stockpiled since Cold War-era weapons production ceased years ago.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside of Carlsbad, N.M., accepted its first shipment of waste in 1999 after decades of planning.
The plant hosts waste half a mile beneath the surface in salt beds formed by an ancient sea.
On Wednesday, 13 employees were notified that they had tested positive for radiological contamination, according to a letter written by Department of Energy official to residents in the area surrounding the facility.
The employees were working above-ground on Feb. 14, the night sensors detected a radioactive release. Employees submitted samples for testing before leaving the site.
The letter states that while "it is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results or any treatment that may be needed," the samples indicate that airborne contamination "was likely at very low levels."
The substance detected was a radionuclide that is used in consumer smoke detectors and is a contaminant in nuclear weapons manufacturing, according to the letter.
The radioactive release followed nine days after a truck hauling salt underground caught fire, forcing an evacuation.