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Amount of radioactive waste at South Carolina landfill doubles

Paraphrased by:
Steve Waldrop
December 17, 2003

The most radioactive type of waste generally allowed at a South Carolina landfill nearly doubled last year, according to statistics provided by Chem-Nuclear Systems. LLC., the site's operator

That means it will take hundreds of years longer for much of the radioactive materials to break down than the more lightly contaminated atomic garbage usually buried at the Barnwell County landfill, state regulators say.

Radioactive waste officials with South Carolina's environmental agency, says the nuclear refuse is packaged well enough to prevent contamination of the surrounding environment.

But environmentalists say the packaging can't last forever- and the waste shipments are part of a trend of bringing more dangerous atomic garbage to the state for disposal at Barnwell.

"We are becoming a graveyard for whole nuclear vessels," Sierra Club member Susan Corbett said.

South Carolina's low-level radioactive waste dump, the only one of its kind in the nation, has in the past six years begun taking used nuclear reactors and parts from atomic power plants.

Each shipment can bring in millions of dollars in fees for the state and Chem-Nuclear to split. But this material, while still low-level nuclear waste, is generally more radioactive than hospital gowns, cleaning rags and other slightly contaminated material also buried at the landfill.

Since 1997, electric utilities have shipped four huge nuclear reactors to the 235 acre site, and two more are on the way. The shipments are occurring as Chem-Nuclear is seeking permission from the state to put more low-level waste in the landfill before it closes to the nation in 2008.

From 2002 to 2003, the most radioactive type of low level waste allowed at the landfill- called Class C waste- rose from 10,500 cubic feet to more than 19,000 cubic feet, according to Chem-Nuclear figures.

That's about 30 percent of the total low-level nuclear waste dumped at Barnwell in 2003, according to Chem-Nuclear.

About five years ago, the percentage of more radioactive Class C waste going to Barnwell was about 4 percent, or about 9,700 cubic feet, the company says.

Chem-Nuclear spokeswoman Deborah Ogilvie said the company is getting a higher percentage of the most radioactive Class C low-level waste because of competition for the least radioactive Class A waste.

Envirocare Inc., located in Utah, is offering lower prices to take the least radioactive waste, said Ogilvie and power company representatives. As a result, companies such as Duke Energy, SCE&G and Progress Energy, are sending their least contaminated radioactive waste to Envirocare's waste dump in Utah. The price difference was unavailable.

In many cases, contamination on use nuclear reactors and other types of more radioactive Class C waste will take up to 500 years or more to decay, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The lightly contaminated Class A waste takes about 100 years to decay.

The 235-acre facility occupies property owned by the State of South Carolina and leased to Chem-Nuclear Systems. The Barnwell Waste Management Facility operates under the authority of Radioactive Material License 097 issued by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Since the disposal facility began operation in 1971, about 28 million cubic feet or 90% of the available disposal volume has been used.