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Nearly four years after its expected completion date, a processing plant that is vital to cleaning up deadly nuclear waste near Aiken is only 65 percent finished and hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.
The Savannah River Site's salt-waste processing plant originally was scheduled for completion in 2009, but problems with its design and the types of materials needed in the facility have delayed work and sent costs skyrocketing.
Early U.S. Department of Energy estimates placed the project's cost at $440 million. The cost later was revised to $900 million, agency records show. Today, it has risen to $1.3 billion, according to a November status report by the Energy Department.
That's an important pocketbook issue for taxpayers.
But delays in the project also are a concern to the public for environmental and safety reasons. Without the salt-waste processing facility, efforts to clean up some of the word's most dangerous atomic waste could be delayed.
The target date for the high-level-waste cleanup is 2027, Energy Department spokesman Jim Giusti said. "That date is going to be in jeopardy based on the delay in the salt-waste processing facility and other fiscal issues.''
'WE ... HAVE TO ADDRESS THE COST'
SRS is a 310-square-mile federal nuclear weapons complex near Aiken that employs about 12,000 people. Materials produced at the site are key ingredients in nuclear bombs.
But the Cold War weapons buildup left a legacy of dangerous atomic waste, and site managers are now working to clean up the toxic mess.
The most dangerous waste sits in 47 aging tanks that are prone to leaks. SRS slowly is cleaning out and neutralizing the material in the tanks to reduce its environmental and health threat. The work, however, can't be finished until the salt-waste processing plant is operating.
SRS managers say the salt-waste plant likely won't open until at least 2018 -- nine years after its initial target date for completion -- although that date is tentative and could be pushed back. The completion date depends on more money from the U.S. Department of Energy.
"We now have to address the cost increase, as well as the schedule delays, and get a viable baseline together for what it is going to take to complete this facility,'' said Zack Smith, the Energy Department's deputy manager at the Savannah River Site.
During a Dec. 13 meeting with the Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council, Smith said he expects to meet with high-ranking Energy Department officials in Washington during the next four months to discuss money for the salt-processing plant.
If the Energy Department approves more money to complete the project, the agency still would need approval from Congress in the 2014 budget, Giusti said.
DELAYS THREATEN LARGER CLEANUP?
Interest groups that normally clash over SRS issues agree the 142,000-square-foot salt-waste facility needs to be finished as soon as possible.
"If the idea is to clean the stuff up, the salt-waste processing facility will certainly accelerate that when it is in business,'' said Clint Wolfe, director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, an SRS support group.
Wolfe and Tom Clements, an official with the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, said the Energy Department has made the tank cleanup one of the agency's highest priorities on the Savannah River Site.
Energy Department officials "need to get their eyes on the ball and focus on the tanks and get the money to carry out this program,'' Clements said.
A statement from director Catherine Templeton said DHEC still expects the Energy Department to open the plant by October 2015, as stated in the permit. Fines of up to $105,000 a day could be levied for each day the plant is not on schedule, DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said.
"Startup of the salt-waste processing facility, a major treatment facility, is crucial for (the) Department of Energy to treat highly radioactive waste and close aging storage tanks,'' Templeton's statement said.