Los Alamos National Laboratory, Savannah River Site’s competitor for the mission to produce plutonium pit “triggers” for nuclear weapons, has struggled with production and safety issues, and the leaders of at least one nearby town don’t want it.
In 2016, Los Alamos got a failing grade in safety from the Department of Energy. In August, workers stored too much plutonium “in close quarters,” a situation that could result in criticality – an uncontrolled nuclear reaction, according to reports in the Albuquerque Journal newspaper.
The Journal also reported that the city council in Santa Fe, about 35 miles from Los Alamos, recently passed a resolution calling for suspension of “any planned expanded plutonium pit production at LANL until all nuclear criticality safety issues are resolved.”
In contrast, local governments in the Aiken-Augusta area are lining up to support an effort to bring the pit mission to SRS, where it would be cheaper for taxpayers, according to information from the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The cities of North Augusta and Aiken, as well as Aiken County, have passed resolutions asking DOE for the mission. The effort is being spearheaded by the Economic Development Partnership, a nonprofit, public-private development corporation that serves Aiken, Edgefield, McCormick and Saluda counties.
Its CEO, Will Williams, said last week that he expects Augusta and Columbia County to follow suit.
“We’ve got buy-in from the governor (of South Carolina) and the Aiken County legislative delegation,” he said.
Those resolutions will say to the congressional delegations of South Carolina and Georgia “that we want this,” Williams said.
The Albuquerque newspaper conceded on its editorial page that SRS wins that part of the fight for the estimated 800 well-paying jobs that pit production could bring.
“While the governing body of Santa Fe, downhill and about 34 miles from Los Alamos, has a somewhat troubled relationship with the weapons lab, South Carolina wants to extend some Southern hospitality to pits,” the Journal wrote.
“If NNSA is inclined to move pit production to South Carolina, be it for safety, cost or merely political reasons, local opinion could be another point in SRS’s favor. This time, our expressed nervousness about the risk of plutonium work and being part of the nuclear weapons complex really might have consequences if the feds do, in fact, listen to local input,” the paper wrote.
Los Alamos hasn’t made a pit since 2011, and never made more than 11 in any year between 1992 – when the Rocky Flats nuclear facility where pits were formerly made was closed – and 2011.
Congress and the Department of Defense have said they want 30 to 80 pits per year, which apparently would require new construction at Los Alamos, costing $1.9 billion to $7.5 billion, according to NNSA documents.
But repurposing SRS’ troubled MOX facility would cost $1.4 billion to $5.4 billion, according to the NNSA.
That’s characterized as one of “two preferred alternatives,” in an NNSA report titled “Plutonium Pit Production Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Results & Next Steps.”
Williams, of the Economic Development Partnership, isn’t ready to concede MOX.
“We want both,” he told North Augusta City Council on Tuesday, before it passed the resolution on pits.
The NNSA projects that building a new pit facility at SRS would cost $1.8 billion to $6.7 billion, cutting into the savings over new construction at Los Alamos.
Tom Clements, of Savannah River Site Watch, doesn’t think either idea is a good one.
“SRS has not historically produced plutonium pits, and to do so would greatly expand the role of SRS in nuclear weapons production, something which would be quite controversial and be faced with both political and public opposition,” he wrote in a statement issued in December, when news of the possible move was leaked. “The MOX project must be smoothly terminated and other missions pursued at SRS but that should not include a new pit facility or expanded plutonium storage or processing.”
In an interview last week, Clements said the U.S. should work for “disarmament, not re-armament.”
There is no estimate for how long the decision-making process might take, and ultimately “it’s up to Congress and the DOE,” Williams said.
His next step is a trip to Washington to rally support.
“We feel like we’re suited for it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of strengths.”