Engineer claims DOE has problems with radioactive waste

By JOEY LEDFORD  |  Jan. 20, 1984
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WASHINGTON -- The Department of Energy has serious containment problems with tons of radioactive waste stored at its top-secret Savannah River weapons plant that could endanger the public, an ex-goverment engineer claims.

William Lawless, 41, until last year an engineer at the DOE facility near Aiken, S.C., said he was frustrated that his research on nuclear waste was not available to the scientific community for analysis.

'The issues that I raised, starting 3 years ago, were never published and transmitted,' said Lawless in a telephone interview Thursday.

Lawless, now an assistant math professor at Paine College in Augusta, Ga., complained to DOE's inspector general and also talked to investigators for the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on investigations and oversight.

Lawless believes management practices at the Savannah River plant, which produces plutonium and tritium for the nation's nuclear weapons, might eventually result in a public health hazard.

His concerns include:

-Corrosion in giant 1.3 million gallon tanks holding liquified high-level nuclear waste. Two reports on the problem, said Lawless, were never made public.

-The danger of explosion from hydrogen buildups in 55-gallon drums containing combustible radioactive waste. DOE plans to transport the drums to a yet-to-be-completed waste disposal facility in New Mexico, despite claims the facility will not be equipped to handle them. Lawless said an explosion would cause 'distribution of some fairly serious radioactive material.'

-Alleged pumping of radioactive water from monitoring wells at the facility, presumably to mask the fact the wells, and therefore groundwater, have been contaminated. The plant sits atop the Tuscaloosa Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to thousands of people in South Carolina and Georgia.

Clif Webb, deputy director of Savannah River's office of external affairs, disputed Lawless' allegations.

'The facts and the allegations that are being presented, from our perspective, are being misrepresented,' said Webb. 'As far as we know, Mr. Lawless has never challenged the safety of the plant, but there have been are are differences of opinion concerning management techniques.'

Lawless said the corrosion problem concerned DOE officials so much that they have quietly spent $3 million studying it.

The hydrogen buildup problem has prompted DOE to spend $50 million for a new 'explosion-proof' facility to house the drums, Lawless said.

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