Originally created 06/18/97

SRS wants to help government dispose plutonium



More than 40 years have passed since workers extracted their first plutonium in Savannah River Site's top-secret factories.

By the time the Cold War ended, they had shipped more than 36 tons of the deadly material to weapons facilities in other states.

Now SRS wants to come full circle and help the government dispose of plutonium from retired nuclear weapons - missions that would bring large investments and hundreds of new jobs to the downsized South Carolina plant.

"We have a lot of experience in handling plutonium and we still have many operations that can be applied to those missions," said Jack Herrmann, a spokesman for Westinghouse Savannah River Co., the SRS operator. "One of the strengths we have that is undeniable is our strong community support. And perhaps most importantly, we have operational people still in place here that have handled plutonium in all of its forms."

But first the Department of Energy wants to find out how the community feels about the proposal to return 50 tons of plutonium to SRS.

The agency has scheduled two work shops in North Augusta for Thursday to discuss the scope of an environmental impact study that must be prepared before a decision can be made. The work shops will be held at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the North Augusta Community Center, 101 Brookside Dr. Anyone with questions or opinions is encouraged to attend.

SRS is competing against four other Energy Department facilities for the assignment to turn as much as 33 tons of left-over plutonium into fuel for civilian nuclear power plants. Another 17 tons would be encapsulated in glass, either at SRS or at Washington's Hanford site, before it's buried underground - possibly in Nevada.

As federal officials travel around the country to meet with communities that might be affected by the plutonium plan, however, the debate is heating up.

Arms control groups are outraged by the Energy Department's decision to release bomb plutonium - albeit in a new form - to utilities.

"We don't want to see weapons-grade plutonium circulate in a civilian industry," said Steven Dolley, research director for Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. "The further use that's made of it, the more remains in circulation and the greater the risk is of it be stolen or diverted. We're also concerned about the signal this sends to the rest of the world."

Whether or not the plutonium is turned into fuel or immobilized in glass, North Augusta resident Bill Reinig feels confident SRS will "get practically all of it."

The main reason, he thinks, is the large, forested buffer zone that shields the public from nuclear operations at the plant.

"Take (Texas') Pantex - it's just a tiny little place," he said. "You have people living close to the fence there. I would think any time you have eight to 10 miles between the plutonium and the public you're going to be safer."