COLUMBIA --- Aiken County lawmakers pressed officials from the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site on Thursday to protect a unique facility and the community that has grown around it.
The president's 2012 budget moves about $100 million from H Canyon operations to liquid radioactive waste disposition operations, a plan that could affect an estimated 700 jobs. H Canyon, named for its design, is the only facility in the nation to process certain types of plutonium, highly enriched uranium and aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuels.
"The money stays at SRS but addresses the greatest risk at the site and our top funding priority," said Jim Giusti, Energy Department spokesman at the site.
This month the contractor was directed to develop plans to bring the chemicals-separations facility to a "minimum safe condition with minimum staffing levels" by the end of the year. But the department is also seeking a list of potential projects, should funding become available.
"When you talk about moving this $100 million into accelerated cleanup, you're basically talking about moving jobs out quicker," Aiken County Republican Sen. Greg Ryberg told a half-dozen officials from SRS and the site's main contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.
"You're talking about changing the operations of H Canyon, which really, to me, causes potential problems, that it's not operable at some point in the future."
Built at the start of the 1950s, the facility began functioning in 1955 and stands nearly 1,000 feet long, 122 feet wide and 66 feet tall. It has control rooms so workers can monitor the equipment and operating processes, equipment and piping gallery for solution transport, storage and disposition, and bridge cranes, according to a Nuclear Solutions profile of the facility.
David Moody, Savannah River Site's operations office manager, said he would communicate the legislators' message to Washington officials.
"I totally understand and I agree with you we have a national asset," Moody said. "I don't believe we necessarily protect that national asset by just cranking used fuel as much as implementing the research and development mission and moving forward to the future."
SRS is already undergoing planned staff reductions.
This month, the site's top contractor began informing employees of layoffs, as it moves to cut up to 1,400 positions by September because of the loss of stimulus funding.
After Thursday's meeting, Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, said he feared H Canyon activities would go the way of the site's K Reactor, which was shut down about two decades ago.
"We feel H Canyon is critical to the survival of the SRS as a viable industry in our community, and our citizens have been very supportive of the site for years," he said.
"I was happy with the fact that the DOE representatives listened to us and agreed to take our message back to Washington."
He added that he hopes U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, will be able to use his bipartisan clout to advocate for H Canyon. In the meantime, Smith said he plans to contact Georgia's state legislators on the other side of the Savannah River to rally support.