AIKEN, S.C. — The Energy Department began cleaning up an environmental nightmare at the old Savannah River Site nuclear weapons plant here in 1996 and promised a bright future: Within a quarter-century, officials said, they would turn liquid radioactive bomb waste into a solid that could not spill or dissolve.
But 17 years later, the department has slowed the work to a pace that makes completion of the cleanup by the projected date of 2023 highly unlikely. Energy officials now say the work will not be done until well into the 2040s, when the aging underground tanks that hold the bomb waste in the South Carolina lowlands will be 90 years old.
“I don’t know what the tanks’ design life was intended to be, but it’s not for infinity,” the state’s chief environmental official, Catherine B. Templeton, said in an interview.
The slowdown has set off a fierce battle between the Energy Department and South Carolina, where officials say they have been double-crossed in what they view as the state’s biggest environmental threat. In an unusual display of resistance from a state that was host to a major part of the Cold War effort to make nuclear weapons — and is now home to most of the resulting radioactive waste — South Carolina is threatening to impose $154 million in fines on the federal government for failing to meet its promised schedule.
Energy Department officials counter that the slowdown is a temporary effect of budget stringency in Washington and that Congress has tied their hands. A combination of the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration and a 2011 cap on military spending — of which the environmental cleanup is technically part — do not leave them with enough money to meet their commitments, they say.
In South Carolina’s reckoning, some of the money that should be spent on Savannah is going to a factory that the Energy Department is trying to finish at its Hanford nuclear reservation, near Richland, Wash., to process similar wastes there. But those wastes are more complex, and contractors have faced even tougher technical problems. That schedule has slipped repeatedly.
Giving more money to Hanford, Ms. Templeton insisted, was “rewarding bad behavior” by site managers there.
South Carolina and the Energy Department do agree on one thing: The current slowdown comes on top of past technical problems that pushed back the start of work by more than seven years and that more than doubled the cost.
Ms. Templeton said the tanks, which are near the Savannah River, already have leaks and are buried in soil below the water table, meaning that underground water flows around them.
“We have to get that waste out of the tanks so it’s not Fukushima, so you don’t have the groundwater interacting with the waste and running off,” she said, referring to the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, where natural flows of subterranean water pick up contamination from the reactors and flow into the sea.
At the Washington State Department of Ecology, Suzanne Dahl, the tank waste treatment manager, said: “I feel their pain. We think the same things out here.” All the deadlines there, in an agreement approved by a Federal District Court, will be missed. Ms. Dahl said that in the 1990s, her state approved a request by the Energy Department to delay work on solidifying wastes at Hanford while the technology was tried out first at Savannah River; Savannah River, therefore, has a 17-year head start, she said.