AIKEN, S.C. -- In a milestone on the road to cleaning up after 40 years of making atomic bombs, the Department of Energy dedicated a $1.3 billion plant yesterday to deal with its most hazardous wastes: millions of gallons of highly radioactive sludges and liquids in decaying steel tanks.
The department said the plant, the largest of its kind in the nation, would be tested for two years with non-radioactive wastes and would begin operating in 1992.
More than half the radioactivity from the nation's military waste is held in 51 underground tanks at the Savannah River Site here, each with 750,000 to 1.3 million gallons of waste. The wastes will be dangerously radioactive for thousands of years, but the tanks were never intended for long-term storage, and
some have leaked.
"All we've done with waste for 40 years is store it," said W. Henson Moore, deputy secretary of energy, in an interview. "Thank God we haven't had any major accidents."
The waste produces explosive chemicals, and for years outside experts have warned that radiation could be spread by an explosion or earthquake. The new plant, the Defense Waste Processing Facility, will not reduce the amount of radioactivity and will increase the waste's volume. But it will encase the most radioactive material in logs of strong glass, wrapped in steel, sharply reducing the chance of leaks.
"We don't understand the chemistry of the tanks," Mr. Moore said. "We understand the chemistry and physics of the glass logs."
The project, long delayed by technical problems, is one of the few modernization steps that has the support of environmentalists. "Everyone here, and I'm sure, across the United States, has an interest in having this thing work," said Frances Close Hart, executive director of the Energy Research Foundation, of Columbia, S.C.