Political consensus holds that Bill Richardson, just-confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be Department of Energy secretary, is good news for the Savannah River Site.
Area legislators share the optimistic sentiment expressed by U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who represents the district where SRS is located. "Early indications are that (Richardson) should be a friend" of the plant.
Richardson's tenure, which presumably will last at leastuntil the 2000 election campaign gets under way, will include some major decision-making that will profoundly impact the SRS, national security and the region's economy.
The most important decision, slated to be made next year, calls for the agency to recommend to Congress where to start up the new tritium-production mission after the turn of the century -- at an uncompleted TVA commercial plant in Alabama or via a linear accelerator to be built and operated at SRS.
Up to a thousand jobs hang in the balance. Cost estimates for both projects are roughly equal -- so ultimately politics will play a major role in DOE's decision.
Sadly, that's also true of another still pending DOE mission: choosing a site for a plutonium immobilization facility. This mission is closely allied to the mixed oxide (MOX) mission for which Federico Pena, in one of his last acts as DOE secretary, picked SRS.
Every indication is that the infrastructure and skilled work force make SRS a much better location for the plutonium disassembly facility than Pantex. The latter, a Texas nuclear weapons plant, is in the running even though DOE estimates show that giving SRS the job would save taxpayers $60 million.
Powerful Lone Star politicians, including GOP Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, are deploying their considerable clout to use Environmental Impact Statement hearings starting this month to discredit DOE's preference for SRS. With a multi-million dollar project and 500 jobs in the offing, the stakes are extremely high.
Hardball politicking, not the merits, will decide the issue. The mobilization of top state lawmakers on both sides of the state line helped impress Pena to locate MOX at SRS.
Now as Environmental Impact hearings come to North Augusta next week, it's heartening to see the bipartisan group gathering again -- this time to lobby for the plutonium mission.
If former congressman Richardson is as "SRS-friendly" as Graham and other lawmakers claim, it's hard to see how Pantex could be chosen over SRS. Surely our two-state area politicans have just as much clout as Texas.
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