The mayor's house here in this rural crossroads town of 300 souls sits at the gateway to what critics call the nation's nuclear dumping ground. But Tim Moore is not concerned--not in the way one might think.
For Moore and many other residents of Barnwell County, Chem-Nuclear Systems Inc. has been a good neighbor for nearly 30 years. As the trucks rumble past each day, bearing low-level nuclear wastes from 38 states, these citizens have taken the opposite of the prevailing public view, Not in My Backyard.
But now, Gov. Jim Hodges (D) wants to end South Carolina's role as the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of radioactive debris--and the negative, some say laughable, image the state has incurred. A 13-member Nuclear Task Force he appointed in June is ready to take up the issue next month in a debate that is sure to have consequences that will be felt around the country.
As long as this 235-acre disposal facility about 40 miles southeast of Augusta, Ga.--generally known as "Barnwell"--is open and welcoming, other states have had little incentive to look for alternative places to dispose of their own nuclear wastes, including everything from materials used in radiation treatments for cancer to nuclear power plant pumps, said the governor's energy advisor, John Clark.
But if the task force recommends that South Carolina enter into a compact to serve only itself, Connecticut and New Jersey, as many of its members appear to favor, the other 35 states will have to scramble, likely setting off a domino effect of controversy over one of the most sensitive issues of modern-day technology. Critics say it is hard to imagine, given today's self-protective climate, that any other community would readily accept such a facility.
"The fact that we have not had the political progress in establishing [other] disposal sites does leave room for concern. There have been a number of different states in compacts that have endeavored to establish sites and have not had a breakthrough," said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, who also noted that because of technological advances, waste volumes been greatly reduced over the last 10 to 15 years.
Although Chem-Nuclear officials insist they operate one of the safest and most sophisticated nuclear-waste disposal facilities in the world, and that no one on or near the site has ever been exposed to harmful amounts of radiation, many outside Barnwell County believe the state's image was damaged long ago. The facility accepts Class B and Class C nuclear wastes, the so-called "hottest" of the low-level wastes--practically everything short of spent nuclear fuel.
The only other nuclear waste disposal facilities in the country are located in Hanford, Wash., which accepts materials from 11 western states only, and in Utah, which accepts only Class A debris, the least radioactive of the low-level wastes.
"It's not so much an environmental issue and whether people around it are comfortable with it. It's more an issue of whether the state is comfortable with it," said former Democratic congressman Butler Derrick, chairman of the task force. "It's the reputation it gives to the state and the effect that that reputation has on economic development and quality of life."
A task force member who favors the limited three-state compact, state Rep. Joel Lourie (D), agrees. "We're known as the state," he said, "that has the Confederate flag, video poker and low-level nuclear wastes."
Critics of South Carolina's role point out that the motto printed on state license tags--"Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places"--often is jokingly referred to as "Smiling Faces, Dumping Places." And in the task force draft report, reference is made to an old episode of the television show "Barney Miller" in which a police detective, trying to find a place to dispose of some nuclear waste "in the possession of an unstable citizen," slams down the telephone and mutters, "Even South Carolina won't take it."
Snelling and Barnwell, the county seat less than five miles away, do not look like what is often characterized as the nation's nuclear dumping ground. Barnwell, population 5,000, has a stately, old-fashioned courthouse square, tall trees shaking off their leaves and an enviable small-town pace. But the county also records one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, about 11 percent, according to the latest figures.
Snelling, which has a single blinking caution light, features large homes set far back from the road, cow pastures, several churches and hand-written signs advertising the sale of deer corn.
Mayor Moore and Chem-Nuclear officials say there is little reason for this review of the state's role other than politics.
"We're the football. We tell them we're tired of being kicked around. We've been punted enough. Every two years, we go through something like this," said Moore, who has served as mayor since 1969, as he sat in the kitchen of the pleasant farmhouse with the wraparound porch where he was born more than 70 years ago.
Moore said that he knows of no one who is really concerned about drinking their private well water or eating vegetables grown in their home gardens, and he adds that Chem-Nuclear always has been "upfront" with the townspeople. In turn, residents have been vocally supportive, turning up in vanloads at public hearings to defend the facility.
Snelling receives about $44,000 a year in taxes from Chem-Nuclear, about half the town's annual budget, while Barnwell County receives about $1.2 million a year in taxes and other fees from the company, a large portion of which goes to the county school district. On the walls of Chem-Nuclear's lobby are posted numerous awards for its contributions to local education and civic endeavors.
David Ebenhack, a vice president at Chem-Nuclear, said the company welcomes visitors, and school groups often take field trips there. What they see is nothing startling--an expanse of grassy meadow that covers the deep trenches in which steel containers of wastes placed in concrete vaults are buried. In an open trench, workers on cranes situate the latest vaults containing debris, all numbered and computer-logged. Visitors wear clip-on instruments that record the amount of radioactivity they are exposed to--none on a visit this week--and sign consent forms stating that, at most, they will be exposed to less radiation than one receives from an X-ray.
What happens next is sure to be a heated debate, as the decision of the task force is passed on to the state legislature for final approval. One option more favorable to Chem-Nuclear would be to allow the status quo for the next 10 years or so, until Barnwell reaches capacity. But Hodges and other state officials fear that this leaves no room for the state's future needs.
"There's a fairly high fixed cost to operating a site like this," said Chem-Nuclear's Ebenhack, "and if they limit our market, if we are not profitable, well, we are not a philanthropy, we will have to close the site. We are always such an easy target."
CAPTION: Radioactive waste from hospitals, power plants and other sources is sealed in steel containers inside concrete vaults.
CAPTION: South Carolina's reputation as welcoming nuclear waste storage may change if this Chem-Nuclear Systems site is closed to waste from all but three states.
CAPTION: Tim Moore, mayor of Snelling, S.C., worked to bring Chem-Nuclear to his town. The facility's taxes funds nearly half the town's budget.