Originally created 10/07/96

Hopefuls vie for SRS vote



Jack Kemp might have had tax cuts on his mind when he campaigned in Augusta last month.

But the vice presidential candidate had spent just a few hours in the Garden City when he found himself talking nuclear reactors and energy policy as well.

Whether they're White House aspirants or political beginners vying for a seat in Congress, candidates shopping for votes in AikenAugusta had better not forget a line or two about the old "bomb plant."

And whether Republican or Democrat, they're all quick to assure that when they get to the nation's capital, Savannah River Site will be in safe hands.

"SRS' main mission now is environmental management and cleanup - that has to be done. But Savannah River Site, more importantly, needs a permanent mission," David Bell, a Democrat challenging Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., told a cheering forum last week. "I'll go to Congress and I'll fight to find Savannah River Site that permanent mission!"

Of course, Dr. Norwood would reply, that's what he's been doing all along as a member of the 104th Congress.

But there are issues directly affecting SRS that Democrats and Republicans differ over.

"Bill Clinton's game plan on nuclear waste is to just ignore the problem," charged Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "Now, I would like to take the waste issue and turn it into a national debate, like welfare, so the president has to sign it.

"As Republicans we're just more open to talk about this. The Democrats have to follow the company line of the president."

Mr. Graham, whose district includes SRS, was talking about proposed legislation to build temporary storage for nuclear power plant waste in the Nevada desert. The president says he will veto the bill.

Without temporary storage, the federal government could be forced to send some of the waste to SRS, which already has huge inventories of radioactive garbage with nowhere to go.

Debbie Dorn, Mr. Graham's Democratic opponent, says the nation needs to focus on long-term solutions, although it "might not have a choice" about the temporary storage.

THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION insists studies at Yucca Mountain - a proposed permanent dump in Nevada - must be completed before any nuclear waste is shipped out West. The Department of Energy has spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars on the mountain, but says it'll be at least a decade until waste can be buried there.

The perception that the $16 billion agency is mired in inefficiency has Republicans calling for the Energy Department's abolition. That's another topic the parties differ over.

"We're spending millions of dollars on a bureaucracy," Mr. Graham said.

The agency's "telephone book is larger than the one we have here in Augusta," Dr. Norwood said during the recent forum. "When you start an agency it just grows on itself. It gets larger and larger and larger ..."

Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole and the Georgia and South Carolina Republicans campaigning in the Aiken-Augusta area think Energy Department programs should be transferred to other - presumably better-run - federal agencies.

Democrats oppose the idea.

What Energy Department foes forget, Ms. Dorn cautioned, is that the department runs a myriad of other programs that are essential to the nation's future, including research of future energy sources. What will happen to those efforts if it's abolished?, the Anderson real estate agent asked.

"Look at what's going on with Saddam Hussein right now," she said. "A big part of that is because of oil. I think it's important we preserve and protect the programs we have right now."

The Clinton-Gore campaign in Atlanta warns closing the Energy Department could be bad news for SRS.

For one, the plant's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory would close, predicted Caroline Adelman, press secretary for the Georgia campaign.

WITHOUT AN ENERGY DEPARTMENT, $137 million in federal funds to the state would be slashed. Some 214 employees would be laid off, she warned.

"The Clinton administration's focus is on streamlining agency operations and reducing the size of government, rather than shuffling pieces around the government," Ms. Adelman said.

It's "easy to say we're going to abolish the Department of Energy, but if you do that you'll have to create another set of layers to oversee SRS and other sites," said Mr. Bell, an Augusta attorney.

Besides, he added, "the Department of Defense doesn't want to oversee Savannah River Site."

That doesn't much worry Republicans.

"DOD will do what Congress tells them to do," Mr. Graham said. "We will make them interested."

Senate candidate and Democrat Elliott Close knows he faces an uphill battle in Aiken against Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who for decades has been SRS' staunchest supporter in Congress.

The Rock Hill real estate developer says he and the 93-year-old senator think alike on several important issues. Both agree temporary waste storage must be built in Nevada and both oppose bringing more nuclear waste to SRS.

But Mr. Close thinks the Energy Department should remain a Cabinet-level agency - something Mr. Thurmond has indicated he opposes.

"It plays a big role," Mr. Close said. "The Republicans are pushing for the abolishment of everything."

HE ADAMANTLY FIGHTS Republican charges that he, like his sister and founder of Energy Research Foundation, Frances Close Hart, wants SRS closed.

"That's simply not the case," he said. "After having visited the site, I know we have what is one of the biggest and best brain trusts in the world out there. We've got a wonderful resource."

South Carolina and Georgia Republicans have had a rocky relationship, at best, with Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

At various times they've called for her resignation, and Mr. Thurmond never tires of bashing the "anti-nuclear crowd" he claims she's surrounded herself with.

The Clinton administration's opposition to reprocessing nuclear fuel at SRS is an example of Mrs. O'Leary's anti-nuclear bias, he and other Republicans charge.

During reprocessing, weapons-grade uranium and plutonium are separated chemically from fuel rods that were irradiated in nuclear reactors. Republicans say resuming full-scale reprocessing at SRS would help reduce the nation's giant inventory of nuclear waste.

But the administration, building on a policy adopted by President Bush, says producing such bomb materials would hurt arms reduction efforts.

Getting away from the acrimonious partisan rhetoric and developing a good working relationship with the Energy Department is the best way to support future missions at SRS, says Ms. Dorn.

Being a Democrat can only help, she says.

"Whether people like it or not, it looks like Bill Clinton will be re-elected," she said. "It would help SRS to have someone in Congress who could walk in to the secretary of energy and be considered a friend."