The State (Columbia, SC) -- April 23, 2002

by Sammy Fretwell

The Savannah River Site is under consideration by the federal government for a factory to make key components of atomic weapons, records show.

SRS would be part of a "large-scale" plutonium pit production system that would begin work by 2018, according to a 2001 high-level waste system plan.

The federal document says SRS would assemble nuclear components for plutonium pits certified for use in war. The plutonium pit manufacturing mission would create up to 33,600 gallons of high-level nuclear waste annually, the report said.

Several details about the proposal were unavailable Monday, including who must approve the factory and what would happen to the nuclear waste.

If the factory is built, it would mark a new era in production of atomic weapons grade materials at SRS. The site formerly produced plutonium during the Cold War.

Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis and U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the production plant would only be built if the U.S. needed to begin large-scale production of nuclear weapons.

At this point, Graham said that is unlikely.

The U.S. is reducing the number of nuclear warheads, and the federal government already is committed to a pit production facility at Los Alamos, N.M, he said. That plant could produce smaller amounts of plutonium pits, said Graham, whose district includes SRS.

Plutonium pits are spherical, metallic objects needed for atomic weapons.

"In case there is a need to ramp up in a major way, a place like Savannah River would be more capable" of producing large-scale weapons components than Los Alamos, Graham said. "But for this to happen, the whole world situation would have to change. The world situation now is we are reducing the number of warheads."

Still, anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements said the Department of Energy's interest in SRS for plutonium pit production shows it wants to concentrate much of the government's future plutonium work in South Carolina.

The DOE is embroiled in a debate with Gov. Jim Hodges over federal plans to store and process excess plutonium so that some of it can't be used for nuclear bombs. Hodges wants a court-approved, federal guarantee the material will be shipped out of South Carolina if a processing plant doesn't get built, as planned by the DOE.

But the fuel processing plant would take only about 34 metric tons of excess plutonium out of a national stockpile of about 100 metric tons, Clements and DOE officials acknowledged.

That leaves plenty of material available for use in building new nuclear weapons, said Clements, a senior campaigner with the Greenpeace environmental group.

"There is the risk that once Savannah River Site becomes the plutonium storage site, then the possibility of it becoming the site for the new bomb factory is going to be much easier for DOE to carry out," Clements said.

Without mentioning SRS specifically, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told the House Armed Services Committee last month that the country needs a contingency plan for a modern plutonium pit production facility.

Plans for the facility "will provide the nation with the means to respond to new, unexpected or emerging threats in a timely manner," he said.

Plutonium pits were formerly made at the Rocky Flats nuclear facility in Colorado with plutonium that came from SRS. Rocky Flats stopped producing pits in 1989 and environmental crews are cleaning up the site.

Excess plutonium left at Rocky Flats is destined for use in mixed oxide fuel (MOX) to be made at SRS. If a new pit production plant were built at SRS, it would replace the process that occurred at Rocky Flats during the Cold War, according to plans.

Jay Reiff, a spokesman for Hodges, said the governor isn't necessarily opposed to a new plutonium pit production factory at SRS. But the governor wants to make sure any of the toxic metal that comes here also leaves the state in some form.

The governor's office is "familiar with the proposed plans, but that is all speculative at this point," Reiff said of the plutonium pit proposal. "The governor just wants to ensure this state is not a permanent storage area for weapons grade plutonium."

A small-scale plutonium pit production plant at the Los Alamos nuclear site in New Mexico wouldn't be enough to handle the load if the nation needed to build up its nuclear arsenal substantially, records show. A 1997 DOE report stamped "not for public dissemination" said the Savannah River Site and a nuclear site at Oak Ridge, Tenn., provided the best options for a modern pit production system. The two facilities would work in combination to make the plutonium pits, according to the document obtained by The State.

The report said intact plutonium pits would be shipped to SRS from the Pantex nuclear site in Texas.

Once in South Carolina, SRS would disassemble the pits and recast them. Pit castings would then be shipped to Oak Ridge for finishing before being shipped back to Pantex. Leftover residues from Oak Ridge would be sent to SRS, the document said.

The report said SRS officials aggressively pursued the new mission. "SRS takes the position that, given enough money, anything can be accomplished in five years," the report said.

A second, less desirable proposal would be to have SRS do all the work, rather than doing so in combination with Oak Ridge, records show. "SRS is the only technically feasible single-site option," the report said.