The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has confirmed the presence of a plume of radioactive tritium that is moving off the Barnwell Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facility in Barnwell, South Carolina. The contamination is moving through the groundwater and is headed southwest toward the Savannah River. Traces of it have been found in Mary Branch Creek as well.
The Barnwell facility is located on 235 acres there were deeded to the state by Chem-Nuclear Systems. It is owned and operated by Energy Solutions. Since it began operations as a radioactive waste disposal facility in 1971, it has accepted over 27 million cubic feet of radioactive waste, mostly from nuclear power plants from across the country. Since July 2008, it has accepted waste only from the three member states of the Atlantic Compact: Connecticut, New Jersey and South Carolina.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated that increased risk of cancer and genetic abnormalities in future generations are the health risks associated with tritium.
Although this is a “new” story, environmentalists claim this has been going on for years.
Susan Corbett, Chair of the South Carolina Sierra Club, had this to say:
The plume started moving off the Barnwell site years ago. In fact, they dug up the adjacent church because there was contamination of soil and groundwater and that was ten years ago. Just like every other low-level nuclear waste site in the country, they have all leaked.
“No one is drinking the water in the immediate area of the dump site. Everything that travels out and into the Savannah River and travels downstream eventually gets in the drinking water of people that use the Savannah River as their drinking source. Since tritium has a half life of twelve years, it takes ten half lives, or 120 years, to be all gone.
“There is no safe level of radiation, especially when it is taken internally. The industry says you can’t prove it does harm and that is the escape clause they use. But they can’t prove that it doesn’t cause harm. We believe you should err on the side of caution.
“There are lots of more dangerous radioactive nuclei in that waste than tritium. There’s plutonium, strontium, cesium and pretty much every radioactive isotope that humans create are in the low-level waste. Just because tritium has leaked does not mean it will stop there. Eventually all of those heavier things will leak out too.
“They are not as mobile as the tritium. It will just take them longer, but as the containment decays and the water table rises and larger pathways are created underground, those things will move off site as well. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will eventually happen. Future generations will have to deal with this.”
Tom Clements, Southeast Nuclear Campaign Coordinators for Friends of the Earth, said:
All of these nuclear dumps sites leak. We are only looking at one isotope. I think there will be lots of other stuff coming after the tritium. I sent a message to the DHEC asking for data on other radioactive isotopes that may be leaking. They are only reporting tritium, but other things are soluble in water. I want to know what else is leaking from the dump. They have not communicated that.
“Tritium has historically been leaking from the site, probably since they first started using it over thirty years ago. I’ve seen photos of boxes with waste and other material just sitting in the water in the bottom of trenches where they dumped it. The leak has been there for a long time.
“It (tritiated water) flows into the creek (Mary Branch) and the levels are very high in the creek. Then it flows on to the Savannah River Site and into a lake and that goes into the Savannah River. It then moves out and downward. So the risk is over time, if the deeper water table gets contaminated and if the river receives materials.
“You can’t really remove tritium (from water), but I don’t think they are doing enough to stop this plume from moving and I don’t know if they can.
“What else is going to leak? And why aren’t they sampling? What are they doing to stop more leakage from the site? What are they doing to remediate the water? The answer appears to be nothing!”
You can watch a news clip below: