TOMORROW a panel of the House Armed Services Committee will consider Department of Energy (DOE) plans to power up a leaky old reactor at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
This hearing comes only two weeks after the nation's top nuclear safety oversight board said it was sure there will be further leakage of radioactive tritium produced by this reactor. Yet the energy department plans to bring the reactor to critical stage during a power ascension test as soon after the hearing as possible and then shut it down for seven or eight months to replace parts.
The Defense Nuclear Safety Board, a federal agency, is understandably concerned about this plan because it tests the reactor before modifications are completed. Board member John Crawford makes the obvious point that it would be safer to do the repairs first and the test second.
DOE's latest plans to correct the problems at this reactor, known as the K-reactor, have not been evaluated with regard to public health or safety by the safety board, yet the department has already given the plant's operators permission to conduct the power ascension tests and bring the reactor to production status when the revised repair schedule is completed.
Are the benefits of restarting the K-reactor worth the risks to public health and safety? That's the crucial question, according to John Conway, chairman of the safety board. Last December's attempt to restart the K-reactor resulted in tritium leakage into the Savannah River. Down-river water supplies had to be shut off for a week. And in a letter to Energy Secretary James Watkins, South Carolina Reps. Arthur Ravenel, John M. Spratt, and Elizabeth J. Patterson, as well as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, all ass erted: "In the public mind, Savannah River Site no longer wears the mantle of military necessity; people are less inclined to assume risks and less forgiving when mistakes occur."
Georgia Gov. Zell Miller is also concerned about the apparent trade-off between short-term jobs and long-term health and safety. He has informed the DOE that he disapproves of plans for further nuclear weapons production at Savannah River Site (SRS). Actual production of tritium is scheduled to start at the K-reactor in early 1993.
In Georgia, which borders the site on the west, the state Environmental Protection Division found radiation levels of up to 20 times normal in both rainwater and milk. This was after reports from the DOE in 1990 that detailed numerous routine and "nonroutine" releases of radioactive substances into the air.
Current radiation levels do not exceed EPA standards. However, Governor Miller stated that contamination of milk indicates significant amounts of radioactive substances have reached the human food chain and "potentially threaten the health and safety of Georgians living near SRS." The 37-year-old K-reactor consumed almost all the $2 billion spent to repair the three reactors at the SRS since 1988. But each time the K-reactor is tested, technical glitches occur.
TRITIUM is a gas whose main purpose is to enhance the power of nuclear warheads. It decays at 5.5 percent a year, but it is currently in plentiful supply. Reductions of US nuclear warheads from 24,500 in 1988 to 10,500 in 1998 will assure a sufficient supply of tritium until 1999. Likely further cuts to 3,000 warheads would assure tritium supplies until 2015.
DOE maintains it must restart the K-reactor, not primarily to produce tritium, but because its skilled employees may leave if operations are not resumed. Business leaders in Aiken feel the departure of these workers could depress the regional economy. However, if employment is the issue, studies show the cleanup programs proposed for SRS will create many more jobs than will ever be available from operating the K-reactor.
Further, Georgia industry leaders believe that with cleanup, economic diversity would return to the Augusta and Aiken regions. The December tritium leak caused at least one major employer to reconsider locating in the region. Risks associated with the restart of the K-reactor are present in the areas of health, safety, and regional economic stability.
The benefit of a restart - if it even exists - is difficult to identify. As Representative Spratt says, "There's no compelling reason for the production of tritium immediately." So why restart the K-reactor?