NORTH AUGUSTA - The balanced budget agreement President Clinton struck with Congress last week could scuttle plans for a $3 billion tritium accelerator at Savannah River Site, project leaders warned Tuesday.
Faced with diminishing federal resources, the team designing the project will present a downsized, $1 billion cheaper model to the Department of Energy this week. It also hopes to sell the idea in Washington by pointing to other uses the accelerator could have, for instance in the medical field.
Accelerator project leaders and SRS officials met Tuesday with community leaders and staff from the South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations in North Augusta to rally support.
The accelerator is on SRS' wish list for new missions and is expected to create more than 1,300 peak construction jobs. Tritium gas is used to boost the explosive power in atomic weapons and must be replenished because it decays over time.
"We're looking for a balanced decision process," said Ambrose Schwallie, president of Westinghouse Savannah River Co., the company running SRS for the federal government. "We want to make sure the budget pressures don't foreclose any options."
The Department of Energy is expected to decide next year whether to build an accelerator to produce tritium gas for nuclear weapons, or whether to hire commercial power reactors for the job.
Both options face challenges. The accelerator is considered doomed by some observers because it's expensive and because the Energy Department has a bad track record with large capital projects that failed or went woefully over budget. The reactor idea faces opposition in some camps because it would let the government revert a longstanding policy against mixing civilian and military uses of nuclear power.
Accelerator proponents fear federal decision-makers are leaning in favor of the reactor option because it's expected to cost significantly less. How much less won't be known until utilities have submitted bids to produce tritium in their reactors next month.
Bill Bishop, director of the Energy Department's Office of Accelerator Production, said projections for the fiscal 1999 budget indicate spending for defense programs could fall $500 million short.
"That means we might not get construction (of the accelerator) started in 1999," he said.
Mr. Bishop is among those pinning their hopes on a downsized, multiple-use accelerator. In addition to producing tritium, it could make medical isotopes for cancer treatment, he said.
The South Carolina and Georgia congressional delegations are about to send a letter Energy Secretary Federico Pena, urging him to consider this new option.
"We believe that it is imperative that the Department move quickly to examine the potential money savings that a modular (accelerator) approach might provide," they wrote.
Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whose district includes SRS and who has predicted in the past the accelerator would not be funded by Congress, said Tuesday the new model looks promising.
"Let's reshape this project and bring the cost down and move in that direction," he said.
But SRS watchdog Brian Costner, who's seen tritium projects come and go over the years, called the proposal "kind of bizarre."
"It's hard to get a rational discussion going in the Savannah River Site area on the merit of a proposal because people there just want a big federal project in their community," he said. "The question for the country is whether or not it makes sense to build an accelerator."
Although the president has ordered a new tritium source by 2005, there's disagreement over whether the need is that urgent. Groups pushing for further cuts in America's and Russia's nuclear arsenals say the date should be pushed back years - perhaps decades.