With attention focused on Santee Cooper’s efforts to build a new coal-fired plant in the Pee Dee region, a plan for two new $18 billion nuclear reactors in Fairfield County has progressed relatively quietly. Power company SCE&G, which is partnering with Santee Cooper to develop the reactors, is hoping to increase customer rates by 37 percent to help pay for them.

Environmental groups hesitate to speak out against nuclear power, a carbon-emissions-free source of energy unlike coal-burning plants, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any informed tree-hugger testifying about the merits of reprocessing nuclear waste into new fuel.

On Thurs. Dec. 4, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) hosts a public hearing in Graniteville, S.C. on the possibility of doing just that.

Proponents tout reprocessing as a way to complete the circle. Nuclear waste still contains plenty of energy after it’s used in a power plant, so at face value, separating the plutonium and uranium out and reusing it seems logical. That process, however, generates new waste streams, thus increasing the volume of radioactive waste (though not the potency), raising proliferation risks, and, if history is any indication, requiring massive expenditures to cleanup the mess it makes.

Throughout the Cold War, huge amounts of nuclear waste were reprocessed to extract weapons-grade plutonium and other elements for the military. The Savannah River Site (SRS) outside of Aiken was a major location for this process. Over 30 million gallons of waste are now buried there. Plutonium was found in the groundwater as early as 1981, and at least nine of the 49 tanks buried there — several partially under the water table — have leaked. Both DOE and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control officials have referred to the SRS tank farm as the greatest environmental risk facing our state.

In a report to DOE last February, the National Academies named SRS among four major nuclear sites in need of cleanup, with tank waste at that site listed as a high-priority, “very expensive and long-term problem.” The report states, “Existing knowledge and technologies are inadequate for (DOE) to meet all of its clean-up responsibilities in a safe, timely, and cost-effective way.”

Much of that waste is the result of military reprocessing to create nuclear bombs throughout the Cold War. In 1992, President George Bush began phasing out reprocessing facilities, leaving one of SRS’ two reprocessing “canyons” as the only facility still operating in the U.S. today. President George W. Bush, however, created the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to research commercial reprocessing, although the partnership’s budget was significantly cut by Congress in 2008 to $179 million.

A Toxic History

The only commercial reprocessing facility in the U.S. operated from 1966 to 1972, in West Valley, N.Y., near Buffalo. Gwyneth Cravens refers to it in her 2007 book, Power to Save the World, a treatise in support of nuclear power.

“The waste, small in volume, was eventually immobilized in glass and put in interim storage,” writes Craven, of West Valley. “The company running the plant decided that environmental regulations made it unprofitable, and it closed … Two other reprocessing plants were built in the U.S. but never used.”

One of those two unused plants is in S.C., directly adjacent to SRS. President Jimmy Carter halted its construction in 1977, when he issued a directive ending commercial reprocessing projects due to proliferation fears.

Just last week, on Nov. 25, DOE issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the cleanup of West Valley, over 35 years since operations ceased there. Without the estimated $7 billion clean-up, the onsite radioactive contamination will seep into Lakes Erie and Ontario.

In 2006, GNEP began a search for new reprocessing sites. SRS is one of 11 potential locations, and it has the strong support of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Gresham Barrett, (R-S.C.).

“The French have figured out how to significantly reduce their nuclear waste, and they aren’t smarter than we are,” Clyburn says. “If we can reduce our waste, we can have onsite storage irrespective of what happens at Yucca Mountain.”

Yucca is a proposed national nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada, but public opposition and escalating costs have kept progress stagnant. Both France and Japan have reprocessing programs, but once the recycled fuel is used, it is then shipped back for storage at the reprocessing facility. The United Kingdom and Russia are both phasing out reprocessing programs due to problems with where to store the waste.

Opponents liken reprocessing to a very expensive shell game, in which waste is reused but not reduced, and is essentially just moved around. They worry a SRS reprocessing site would become a de facto nuclear waste dump.

“The whole thing is just one big scam. It’s not recycling at all,” says Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for the environmental-advocacy group Friends of the Earth. “It just makes the waste problem a lot worse because it creates liquid waste streams. The end result of reprocessing is a waste of a lot of money and the creation of an environmental nightmare at every facility where it’s proceeded. We just aren’t going to allow a West Valley to happen here in South Carolina.”

Clinton Wolfe, the executive director of Aiken-based Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, says the notion that reprocessing will create more waste stems from the Cold War days, and that new technologies allow us to recycle more of the chemicals and wind up with less highly radioactive waste. According to Wolfe, 95 percent of nuclear waste’s energy content remains when we typically store it away, making reprocessing the economical and environmental thing to do. And if the waste stays at SRS, Wolfe says, “That’s fine. And even if it goes somewhere else in the country, first of all, we’d like to see a commitment to reprocessing.”

Wolfe’s organization backs any project that furthers nuclear research and brings projects and money to SRS, where 15,000 Aiken-area residents are employed.

Clements says Wolfe’s approach is a short-sighted one that benefits a narrow group financially, while everyone else bears the burden of a potential cleanup to a site already contaminated beyond the scope of the government’s ability to rectify.

“The lifeblood of DOE is new, capital intensive projects, and they have created a kind of fiefdom around the country of communities that are dependent on a continuous input of money,” says Clements. “SRS boosters will try to get anything, as long as it means money flowing into the area.”

Rep. Barrett recognizes and supports that need, and considers the reprocessing program a forward-thinking approach, says spokeswoman Colleen Mangone.

“(He) understands the desire of the SRS community to bring new missions to the site. He is confident that will be expressed during the public comment period, and he will continue to work toward that goal,” she says.

Money may be reprocessing’s biggest hurdle. A 2007 study by the Keystone Center, underwritten by the nuclear industry’s lobbying body, the Nuclear Energy Institute, found that “reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future.” Estimates range from $20 billion to $50 billion to build a facility, and $700 billion for a national program. The recycled fuel would require “fast reactor” power plants not currently in existence in the U.S. And while John McCain mentioned reprocessing in each of the three presidential debates, it’s unlikely that President-elect Barack Obama would actively pursue such an expensive and controversial technology.

The only S.C. politician to speak out in recent months against reprocessing is Rep. John Spratt. He suspects that SRS would likely emerge as a top location if it’s pursued, but believes the cost and waste disposal problems will end the debate for now. Spratt also points out the proliferation risks of reprocessing — the reason it was ceased nearly four decades ago.

“In truth, it develops more plutonium-239, which is weapons-ready and doesn’t have the disadvantage of being so radioactive that it can’t be handled,” says Spratt. He says he’s not opposed to exploring the possibilities if new technologies arise, but suspects pursuing reprocessing before waste disposal is in place is like putting the cart before the horse.

A mere 20 pounds of plutonium is needed to make a nuclear bomb, and with commercial facilities handling large amounts, Friends of the Earth’s Clements worries that even if we controlled the substance in the U.S., we’d be sending the wrong message to other countries considering reprocessing.

Gov. Mark Sanford’s Climate, Energy, and Commerce Advisory Committee issued a statement this year tepidly supporting reprocessing, but only if an evaluation shows it to be cost-effective. It clarifies the committee’s support as “contingent on a plan for the shipment of the waste out of state to an operating facility that is actively receiving nuclear waste for long-term disposal.”

Anywhere a nuclear waste facility or storage site is proposed, there’s bound to be a heavy dose of not-in-my-backyard bellowing. But SRS has been housing nukes in our backyard for decades, and there may be enough supporters with split atoms in their eyes to keep them coming for decades more.

Public comment on a nuclear reprocessing plant in S.C. will be taken until Dec. 16. E-mail GNEPTechDemo@nuclear.energy.gov.