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Leak Found in SRS Radioactive Waste Tank

October 6, 2005

Columbia, SC-- A small leak in one of the oldest radioactive waste tanks at the Savannah River Site has been found, but an official said there was no immediate health or environmental concerns.

The leak on the nearly 50-year-old tank dried up and plugged itself, Westinghouse Savannah River Co. spokesman Dean Campbell said. It was found Monday, but it was unclear exactly when the liquid escaped.

"Any leakage never traveled beyond a few inches from the leak site before it dried on the outside of the tank wall," said Campbell, whose company operates the site for the Department of Energy.

The underground tank, one of 51 at SRS, the former nuclear weapons complex near Aiken, holds about 191,000 gallons of sludge from Cold War bomb-making and was scheduled to be emptied next year. The first step in that removal process, which was adding water to the tank, began in November.

"The water that we added to it to help soften up the sludge apparently was a factor," Campbell said.

The tank had three previous leaks, but none were active. The new leak is similar in size, location and makeup to the others.

Environmental attorney Geoffrey Fettus of the Natural Resources Defense Council said he looked forward to seeing the incident report on the leak. "It's always cause for great concern and we'll be looking for all the information," Fettus said.

The process of removing the waste from the tanks and closing them has come under scrutiny from environmentalists concerned about the DOE's plan to leave about 1 percent of the sludge behind.

The process has been challenged in courts, but last year Congress agreed to allow the sludge to be left in tanks at SRS and a federal facility in Idaho instead of being shipped to a central repository.

Congress approved a measure that reclassifies the sludge from high level to incidental, a category that means it can be left in the tanks and combined with concrete grout.


SRS has about 36 million gallons of nuclear waste in 49 tanks. Two tanks have been closed. The waste in the tank is scheduled to be sent to the Defense Waste Processing Facility undergo a process called Vitrification, also known as glassification. Explained simply, waste is mixed with glass-frit, melted down then poured into long-term storage canisters. The 60-90 pounds per canister of radioactive waste is not encapsulated in the glass, but is actually part of the glass. This protects against any possibility of leakage.

"We continue to investigate the condition and determine the best course of action. There is no danger to workers, the public or the environment," Campbell said. "Since the tank is already scheduled for waste removal activities, those activities will continue."