A community of answers

When retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft boards his flight later today after a two-day visit to the CSRA, he and his colleagues on President Obama's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future will leave with a clear message: Savannah River Site and this community are ready to be part of the solution to America's nuclear waste disposal challenge.


The commission, which Gen. Scowcroft co-chairs with former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, will know they have visited what is arguably the most nuclear-friendly community in the United States. They undoubtedly will depart reassured by the capabilities, expertise and determination of the men and women who work at SRS.

TODAY, AT A PUBLIC session at the Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites, the commission will hear that we, as a community, consider SRS to be a good neighbor, one that has excelled in its unique national security mission -- holding America's secrets while introducing innovative technology and creating thousands of well-paying jobs for the people of this region. In fact, the most ardent opposition to our success comes from groups outside our area.

The message will be delivered that those employed at SRS are the best in their respective fields. Whether they are engineers, operators, health physicists, chemists or in dozens of other nuclear specialties, they exemplify the highest standards of professionalism and expertise, and they stand ready to meet any national challenge.

It should not be forgotten that they have done their work safely, making SRS one of the most accident-free sites in the U.S. Department of Energy complex, and one of the safest major industrial sites in the world.

Most importantly, the commission will be impressed with the fact that, when it comes to nuclear matters, this is a community of answers.

WHETHER IT INVOLVES producing tritium for nuclear warheads; vitrifying liquid waste into an impermeable glass form; or permanently disposing of excess weapons plutonium by converting it into reactor fuel, SRS has always stepped up to meet the national need. SRS team members are problem-solvers of the first order, combining unparalleled know-how with a can-do attitude to come up with answers to some of the knottiest technical challenges known to man.

The technical wizards in our community have manufactured essential ingredients for nuclear weapons. They have produced radioisotopes to power deep-space exploration. They have built and operated sophisticated nuclear production reactors and one-of-a-kind reprocessing facilities. They are cleaning up the legacy of decades of Cold War defense operations.

We see no reason why that same expertise and gritty determination cannot now be channeled toward solving the technical and political issues surrounding the search for a way to safely and effectively close the nuclear fuel cycle.

The Savannah River Site Community Reuse Organization, along with organizations and political entities in the region, are on record opposing the president's decision to abandon Nevada's Yucca Mountain as the permanent repository for nuclear waste. We will not support SRS becoming a permanent de facto storage place for defense waste originally destined for Yucca Mountain. But we also recognize SRS knowledge and capabilities in reprocessing of nuclear fuel are unsurpassed. SRS has a proven track record as the go-to facility within the DOE complex when it comes to handling spent nuclear fuel.

In our view as a nuclear community, H Canyon is a particularly impressive facility with a one-of-a-kind capability that should be preserved and exploited for the good of the nation. In a reprocessing option, H Canyon can play a critical role in the research and demonstration testing of technologies to minimize the volume of spent fuel that otherwise must be stored in a repository.

LIKEWISE, THE SAVANNAH River National Laboratory is a unique and vital resource that can contribute immensely to solving nuclear waste issues. With its slogan of "We put science to work," the SRNL's 50-year heritage of applying science to meet the needs of the DOE and the nation distinguishes it from the other DOE national laboratories. This unique position will enable SRNL to lead the nation in translating basic research into practical application.

These talents and capabilities are being reinforced and expanded by an aggressive SRSCRO-led Nuclear Workforce Initiative aimed at training workers for future nuclear jobs. The NWI, which already is receiving national attention, will ensure that we continue to have a ready work force that can be readily focused on the national dilemma this commission is now addressing: How can we resolve the pressing issue of spent fuel storage and nuclear waste disposition?

Finding the right answer is the charge of the president's Blue Ribbon Commission. Finding the right answer has been the life's work of the people at Savannah River Site. And if the commission's mandate can be blended with SRS capabilities and its track record in answering complex questions, this will be a good day indeed -- for our community and the nation.

(The writer is chairman of the SRS Community Reuse Organization, and president/CEO of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce.)