Controversy Remains Over Barnwell Nuclear Plume

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Barnwell, SC (WLTX) - A plume of a low level radioactive substance is traveling through the ground and has bubbled up in a creek in Barnwell, about an hour and a half from Columbia.

The plume has been there for some time, but new concern over how nuclear waste at a disposal site nearby has sparked debate and a court battle.

"I think the risk is over-inflated," said Michael Benjamin, General Manager of Operations at the site owned by Energy Solutions.

The 235 acre site has accepted low level nuclear waste for the past 43 years.

For the past 20 years, Energy Solutions and DHEC have monitored the plume of radioactive Tritium. The nuclear byproduct has traveled through groundwater and reached Mary's Branch Creek near the disposal site.

"You have to keep in mind that low level does not mean low risk," said Susan Corbett, Chairwoman of the South Carolina Sierra Club.

Court documents from a claim filed by the Sierra Club say nuclear waste was sometimes transported in paper and cardboard to the site years ago.

"The tritium plume was caused by things that happened in the late 70's and early 80's when there wasn't any regulation on the packaging of this waste and it was put in the landfill in insufficient packaging," said Mary Shahid, an attorney representing Energy Solutions.

A sampling of 25 monitoring stations throughout the disposal area showed Tritium levels decreased 11 times, remained stable 10 times, and increased 6 times during the last 5 years.

In their most recent annual report to DHEC, Energy Solutions characterize the Tritium plume overall as stable.

"We have not seen any other radioactive materials other than naturally occurring radioactive materials that you're going to find anyway," Benjamin said.

We asked to see security improvements introduced at the site, after stricter regulations were approved in 1995.

"We're standing on top of a closed disposal trench," Benjamin said during our tour of the site.

Inside storage trenches, there are multiple containers. Nuclear waste is stored in a high integrity container, or HIC, a super plastic unit so secret we were not allowed to see it.

The HIC is placed inside a cement vault and that cement vault goes inside a trench.

The vault has a drainage hole on the bottom though critics say continues to expose water to nuclear waste.

"If you don't stop it now, our descendants will have to deal with it in the future," Sierra Club's Corbett said. "It will leak at some point if you allow the water to get into the trenches and come in contact with the waste."

The Sierra Club has made the disposal method at the Barnwell site part of a multi-year court battle still going on in appeal. They don't believe the site is in compliance with the most recent set of 1995 regulations in how the site handles waste and prevents leaking.

"Having the hole in the bottom of the vault, allows the natural movement of water to occur," Benjamin said of his site's containers. "It reduces risk by not having, not allowing the collection of water that would then fill up the vault, overflow the vault, and have a greater risk of trapping contaminated and taking them with it."

When trenches fill with vaults, engineers cover the trench with that they call an enhanced cap they say disperses rain water and prevents contact with nuclear waste underneath.

"There is a leak out there. That problem has been monitored and fixed ever since and so, I don't know why there's such a big deal now," said Barnwell Mayor Ed Lemon.

Lemon is a Barnwell native who says he's lived around the low level site since his inception.

"It's actually been a boom for us," Lemon said. "People that don't live here just don't understand, it's actually been really good for us."

The site takes low level waste from not only South Carolina, but New Jersey and Connecticut too.

It's already buried 28 million cubic feet of waste and expects to bury a million more cubic feet over the next 27 years.

Once the site runs out of room and stops accepting waste, DHEC takes control of the property and monitors it with money currently being put into a fund.

"That plume's been there a long time and nobody's excited about having something like that," Lemon said. "It's in a creek that's not used, and even though you never want anything like that to happen, they're watching it real good from what we understand and we're happy with what they're trying to do."

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