by Tom Perlic
South Carolina Chapter Director
Most Americans have never given a second thought (or, for that
matter, a first) to Barnwell County, a poor farming region of
20,000 in south-central South Carolina. The county's low profile
is something it shares with "low level" nuclear waste, its major
import -- and the reason Barnwell deserves our undivided
Barnwell County is where America stores its radioactive garbage.
Since 1971, a Waste Management Inc. subsidiary called
Chem-Nuclear has operated a so-called low-level radioactive waste
dump here, burying practically anything that glows -- spent fuel
rods from nuclear power plants being the notable exception -- in
a hole in the ground. The hole is just 18 feet above the water
table, and just about 15 miles from the Savannah River, a major
source of drinking water for residents of both South Carolina and
Georgia. In old, unenlightened days, trucks simply backed up to
the landfill and dumped their toxic cargo willy-nilly into the
Today, things are different: The barrels are stacked before
Despite the obvious dangers inherent in having tritium, cobalt 60
and other radioactive materials leak into its groundwater,
Barnwell County is happy to be the final resting place for the
nation's nuclear trash. And the rest of us -- residents of the 37
states that patronize its 240-acre toxic landfill -- may be just
as happy that we don't have to worry about disposal.
Except that we do. There are three basic problems with dumping
our low-level nuclear waste on Barnwell.
- First, "low level" is a misnomer. The nuclear industry would
have you believe that what it calls LLRW, or low-level
radioactive waste, applies only to medical supplies. In fact, the
category includes intensely radioactive industrial and
nuclear-power reactor utility waste. The major source of LLRW is
nuclear power plants.
- Second, "disposal" is a fantasy. There's no way at present to
dispose of LLRW, safely or otherwise. The stuff can only be
stored and watched over, some of it for thousands of years, in
order to protect the environment and its inhabitants from
damaging exposure. There's only one sane response to radioactive
waste. Stop generating it to begin with.
- Third, Barnwell is closer than you think. In 1987, Congress
mandated that each state "shall be responsible for providing,
either by itself or in cooperation with other states, for the
disposal" of all wastes legally classified as LLRW. Since then,
groups of states have formed "compacts" in which one state would
handle nuclear garbage from others in its compact.
system, however, never really got off the ground, and is
currently imploding amid charges and recriminations.
And since Barnwell can't forever remain our lone radioactive
dump, it may soon be every state for itself.
Of course, even the status quo is fraught with peril for the rest
of the country. Is it safer to have a nuclear waste dump in your
state, or to have your homegrown radioactive garbage -- or some
other state's, for that matter -- stored where it's generated or
trucked to South Carolina along the highway that runs through
So-called low-level radioactive waste threatens everyone, no
matter where they live. In South Carolina -- 75 percent of whose
residents want Barnwell closed -- the Sierra Club has asked the
state Supreme Court to rule on the legality of recent
legislation, tacked onto the budget bill, to keep the dump open.
One way or another, we hope eventually to put a halt to this
environmental and public-health threat to this part of the world.
But Club activists and environmentalists everywhere should pay
close attention to the struggle here in South Carolina. No matter
which way the Supreme Court rules, we can't keep burying the
problem of nuclear waste in Barnwell County.
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