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Never Underestimate the Power of a Small Group of Committed People

by Robert Alvarez

Dec 18, 2023 | Environment

Savannah River Site

As a citizen activist in the late 1970s and 1980s working at the Environmental Policy Institute, Robert Alvarez was among the first to document the extreme hazards of managing high concentrations of nuclear waste derived from nuclear weapons production, and as a senior appointee at the Department of Energy, he worked to prevent the department’s vast holdings of contaminated materials from entering the civilian metal supply.  In the following vignettes, Alvarez recalls his encounters with the nuclear age and the often mind-numbing indifference with which government and industry have viewed both public health and safety concerns and the protection of the environment. 

A few days after Ronald Reagan was elected President in November 1980, I met with activists and scientists at a resort near Asheville, North Carolina – knowing that a major nuclear arms buildup was on the horizon. We believed the public living near nuclear weapons sites should know what’s in store and were determined to shine a light on the Savannah River Plant (SRP) in South Carolina – the nation’s main producer of nuclear explosives. 

In 1950, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) forced 6,000 people from their homes in order to occupy the 310 square mile site on the coastal plain along the Savannah River to produce plutonium and tritium for thermonuclear weapons. 

Operated by the Dupont Corporation, the first production reactor started up in December, 1953 and the following year the first warhead materials were chemically separated and sent offsite. By the end of the 1970’s, SRP was the largest nuclear material production site in the country – generating nearly 80 percent of the radioactivity in all U.S. military high-level radioactive waste.

Like the Hanford Nuclear Reservation on the Columbia River in Washington State, SRP relied on the environment as a storage and disposal medium, known as a “buffer zone,” for enormous amounts of radioactive and other hazardous wastes. Five heavy water reactors, two reprocessing plants, one-million-gallon tanks holding high-level radioactive waste, and a tritium recovery plant were at the heart of the operation. 

Unlike Hanford, whose reactors wore out by 1971, SRP’s reactors were designed to maximize production of tritium. Because tritium is essential to enhance the power necessary to ignite an H-bomb, its half-life of 12.3 years meant that SRP had to constantly replenish the supply. Also, unlike Hanford which sat one hundred feet above the water table, high-level waste tanks sat in ground water at SRP.

I first became involved with SRP after speaking at a 1978 protest rally held by the Palmetto Alliance near the site. Local activists were able to draw several thousand folks from the south to voice their opposition to the Barnwell reprocessing plant, near the edge of SRP – meant to recover plutonium from commercial nuclear power spent fuel. 

While the focus at the time was on the Barnwell facility, the Savannah River Plant loomed large. By the spring of 1980, an even larger crowd showed up to protest what a local famer called the “bum plant.” SRP could no longer operate in secrecy and isolation from the public.

At the meeting in November, 1980, Karl Z. Morgan, considered the father of the science of human health and radiation exposure, convinced his former colleagues –  including the first chief of health physics at SRP, as well as a preeminent radiation ecologist who had retired from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory – to participate. They provided expert guidance in fashioning a Freedom of Information Act request. We learned that DuPont maintained a system of detailed reporting that remained unchanged since the early 1950’s, making it easier to specify what we were after. 

Also in attendance was Frances Close Hart, who would go onto to establish the Energy Research Foundation – a formidable critic of SRP in South Carolina, as the U.S. Department of Energy and Dupont would soon learn. The Foundation led efforts in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), to block the restart of SRP’s aging production reactors. 

After the meeting I crafted a Freedom of Information request focused on the history of environmental, safety and health problems at the site. Karin Sheldon, a seasoned nuclear litigator at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund agreed to represent me. After filing our requests, the matter grew so contentious that Karin forced the managers at SRP to retract libelous statements made on two occasions to the local press about me. 

After a couple of years, DOE responded to our request and to that of the Energy Research Foundation by providing several thousand pages of records. Based on these documents, we learned that:

  • An unpublished DuPont study reported excess leukemias among SRP’s workers. The Centers for Disease Control convened an advisory panel in early 1983 that verified the leukemia findings. However, it took more than a decade, after the SRP worker study was transferred to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), to establish that the leukemia deaths were radiation related.
  • Offsite measurements taken by DuPont for more than 20 years indicated that public doses were 130% higher than expected from natural background radiation.
  • A previously secret map in March of 1955 showed a cigar-shaped deposit of radioactive fallout directly covering the SRP reactor area. DuPont claimed the fallout was caused by a nuclear weapons test in Nevada. However, the level of radioactivity from the deposition in SRP’s reactor area was much higher than fallout from the center of the bomb cloud which was five hundred miles away. 

In 1984, our study implicating SRP –  “External Gamma Radiation around the Savannah River Plant” – was published in Ambio, a peer review journal of the Swedish Royal Academy of Science, and was soon attacked by Dupont.

 Thanks to the Energy Research Foundation, we obtained a data base containing some 14,000 chronological entries of “unusual occurrences” at the SRP high-level radioactive waste tanks – involving worker exposures, spills, equipment failure, accidents, and catastrophic risks. 

In July 1986, we released a study based on the data base (“Deadly Crop in the Tank Farm”, led by Arjun Makhijani) that gained national attention. For the first time, we revealed the extraordinary and dangerous history of managing the largest concentration of high-level radioactive waste in the nation. Of particular concern was the potential for explosive gases to build-up in the giant one-million-gallon tanks – a concern that still exists today.

In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the lack of containment domes to hold back a catastrophic release of radioactivity prompted a shutdown of SRP’s remaining production reactors. “These facilities were built under a different system of standards, and there’s been a failure to modernize them.” I said at a press event. “ They’ve operated under such secrecy they’ve not been subject to outside pressures for improvement, so now they’re stuck living in the nuclear stone age.”

By October 1988, I left my job at the Environmental Policy Center and was working as a senior investigator for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, chaired by John Glenn (D-OH). As such, we were investigating the failed efforts to restart one of SRP’s reactors. The Energy Department’s nuclear weapons managers were trying to thwart safety experts recruited from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Nuclear Navy in order to resume production of tritium. The experts were appalled by what they saw, as reactor operators bypassed basic and elemental safety warnings. After one interview with DOE safety experts, someone slipped me a copy of a report summarizing thirty major safety lapses and near misses at SRP’s reactors – clearly indicating their troubled and dangerous history.

We promptly made this a centerpiece of our investigative hearing held by the Senate Committee the next day. The New York Times picked it up and launched a 3-month series of daily front page stories about the environmental, safety and health problems of the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex. The Times ignited major coverage by national, regional and local news outlets, which for the first time helped make the American public aware of the hazards and legacies of making nuclear weapons, especially among people working at and living near these facilities.

What began as a small meeting among a handful of people in November 1980 at the Pisgah National forest contributed to a blossoming national recognition of the dangers of building nuclear weapons and our failure to find safe and reliable ways of managing their waste product.


A senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, Robert Alvarez served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment from 1993 to 1999.

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