Coastal S.C., Georgia question tritium production after radioactive leak Angry residents call for halt to reactor

January 13, 1992|By New York Times News Service

BEAUFORT, S.C. -- The scare is over, but in the "Prince of Tides" setting of golden coastal marshes, moss-draped live oaks and seaside resort communities, questions linger after a leak of radioactive water from the Savannah River Site has raised new questions about the safety of the nuclear weapons plant.

At recent public hearings in Beaufort and on nearby Hilton Head Island, angry residents demanded a halt to plans to restart the aging reactor that caused the leak 150 miles from the coast.

Energy Secretary James D. Watkins and other officials said that federal monitoring and notification procedures should have been better, butthat there was no risk to public health in the incident.

But the leak of 150 gallons of radioactive water Dec. 22 has starkly demonstrated how high the economic and environmental stakes remain in a nuclear weapons industry that lives on after the Cold War has died.

The leak at the Savannah River Site, the nation's only installation for making the tritium needed for nuclear weapons, has pitted Georgia against South Carolina and coastal residents affected by the spill against upstate residents whose jobs depend on the plant. The debate involves South Carolina's largest employer, with 24,000 jobs, and a site that already is storing 34 million gallons of radioactive waste.

The leak also has raised embarrassing new questions about the government's decision to spend more than $1 billion to repair the aging nuclear reactor amid general agreement that it is not needed now, andsome doubts that it will ever be needed.

"I'm certainly a loyal American," said Robert E. Huber, an official with the Hilton Head Island Water Utilities, which is considering using the Savannah River, where the spill occurred, as a drinking water source.

"I believe in national security. I believe in high-risk situations where people have to take more risk, but that's certainly not the case in the 1990s. Therefore, the risk to people should be commensurately reduced."

The incident began Dec. 22 during preparations for the restart of the 37-year-old K Reactor.

The reactor had been closed for nearly four years because of safety concerns that led to the permanent shutdown of the other two reactors at the site. After years of debate, Mr. Watkins on Dec. 13 ordered it be restarted.

But during the beginning of start-up procedures, about 150 gallons of highly radioactive cooling water containing tritium leaked into the adjacent Savannah River through a tiny crack the size of a pencil lead.

The leak went undetected for two days because the official in charge of authorizing transportation of water samples to a nearby laboratory was out with the flu.

Because of elevated tritium levels, drinking water plants that serve the coastal area and oyster beds on the Georgia and South Carolina coast were closed after the leak.

Tritium is not considered as hazardous as some radioactive substances, but its ability to bind with water and flow through the body makes it a health concern.

Two industrial users, the Savannah Foods and Industries sugar refinery and Fuji Vegetable Oil, were also closed as a precaution and have now reopened. Tritium readings have since returned to normal and the normal uses of the river water have resumed.

The incident reflects the huge economic and environmental stakes.The area around the plant has boomed as employment at the plant has more than doubled in recent years. Officials there tend to be sanguine about the incident.

"The people who work there should be the ones who know the truth of what went on behind the fence, and they are feeling fine about the safety," said Jane Murff, head of the Aiken County Chamber of Commerce.

Near the coast, where the environment is the economy, the feelings are more intense. Federal officials received some withering, and often hyperbolic, responses at public hearings on Wednesday.

"I don't believe a thing that you're saying," one man said to loud applause at a hearing last week. "I'd like to see them shut down the plant for this reason: We have not used a nuclear weapon since World War II. We're not killing our enemies. We're killing ourselves."

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