It could prove to be a fatal blow to Savannah River Site's much-desired tritium mission.
Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced Wednesday that an idle nuclear reactor at the Hanford site in Washington is now considered for future production of the nuclear weapons material.
The outgoing energy chief assured that the Fast Flux Test Facility will be kept on active standby only as a "very cheap insurance policy" should other tritium options be ruled out in 1998. Maintaining the reactor will cost taxpayers $88 million over the next two years.
"We're not abandoning the dual track strategy," Mrs. O'Leary said in a news conference call. "But two years from now, if the tritium needs goes down some .°.°. keeping it on standby will have made very good sense because it might be a new source for tritium as a backup, or it might be its own full-fledged source for tritium."
Further nuclear arms reductions in the United States and Russia, "the kind of acceleration many hope for," could change the need for tritium, she said. SRS officials and many residents in the Aiken-Augusta area hope the Energy Department will build a $3 billion accelerator at the plant to produce the bomb material. Such a project would bring hundreds of new jobs to the downsized South Carolina plant.
The government is also contemplating using a commercial nuclear power reactor, possibly Plant Vogtle in Burke County, to produce tritium - a plan that would also involve SRS.
But lately, "the road to produce tritium seems to be meandering all over the plate," said an incensed Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose district includes SRS.
"I'm afraid they're coming up with different alternatives each week that are costing millions of dollars and moving further and further away from Savannah River," he said. "There are all kinds of political agendas here, including Washington political pressure from a state that President Clinton carried. I think it's ill-advised."
The tritium program's lack of focus ultimately puts the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile at risk, he charged.
A radioactive gas, tritium is used to boost the explosive power of all nuclear weapons. It decays by 5.5 percent a year, however, and new production must start up by 2005 to ensure the current weapons stockpile will remain viable, the government says.
Bruce Hall, a Greenpeace disarmament campaigner, said he expects the U.S. and Russia to make progress in their arms reduction talks over the next few years.
"Especially with the budget cuts we're faced with I think that means we're going to see more interest in the FFTF (Fast Flux Test Facility)," he said.
If SRS's tritium aspirations lost some momentum Wednesday, so did the company that initially helped convince the Energy Department to take a second look at the Hanford reactor.
Washington-based Advanced Nuclear & Medical Systems Inc. approached Energy Department officials in 1995 with a proposal to privatize the reactor to produce medical isotopes used to cure cancer. Tritium production would only occur on an interim basis until the SRS accelerator had been built to help pay for the isotope project, the company said.
But on Wednesday, Mrs. O'Leary said she her agency was not considering privatizing the facility at this point.
Bill Stokes, president of ANMS, called the reactor standby plan "nearly $100 million in tax dollars down the drain."
"We see this as just kicking the can down the street and make somebody else make the decision," he said. "We're going to spend all this money just to wait and see what's going to happen two years from now."