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Will South Carolina Become the Nation's New Yucca Mountain?

by Sue Sturgis

Earlier this year President Obama canceled the federal government's plans to store high-level radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and weapons facilities at the controversial Yucca Mountain site in Nevada -- but now there are concerns that South Carolina could become a permanent dumping ground for the dangerous waste.

That state is home to the Savannah River Site, a nuclear materials processing center along the Savannah River 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga. Built during the 1950s to refine nuclear material for weapons, the site no longer has any operating nuclear reactors and is engaged in cleanup activities.

Given the demise of Yucca Mountain, business leaders in South Carolina and Georgia are expressing worries that high-level waste at the Savannah River Site may now be left there permanently. Scientists have warned about potential environmental contamination from long-term storage of such highly radioactive waste in the Savannah River watershed.

This week the SRS Community Reuse Organization -- a nonprofit group working to diversify the region's economy and a supporter of the Yucca Mountain site -- released a report [pdf] calling for a special blue-ribbon panel to study options for disposing of the waste.

As the preface states:

The government's about face on this critical issue leaves state and local leaders with more questions than answers. Those responsible for public safety, job creation, image enhancement and citizen confidence must now lead in a new reality. They must come to terms with their community's lingering -- perhaps permanent -- role as caretaker for the Nation's highly radioactive waste.

As a region, we are now left wondering what's next? How we will come together in unity to address a path forward in the wake of this broken promise -- one that has implications of the longest possible term and a potential chilling effect on the region's future growth and prosperity?

The group's report says that if and when a panel is assembled to plot a new strategy for high-level nuclear waste storage, the Savannah River Site region's leaders should get a "seat at the table."
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