Originally created 08/05/98

Nuclear site may see new life



COLUMBIA -- Wedged between a nuclear waste landfill and a nuclear weapons complex, the Allied General Nuclear Services plant was supposed to help solve the problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel from the nation's reactors.

It also was supposed to provide badly needed jobs in Barnwell County.

Then came fears of what would happen if terrorists got hold of the fuel, which contains weapons-grade plutonium, and the plant sat idle for 15 years. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., later called it "one of the most remarkable white elephants" in U.S. history.

Now, however, it is being cleaned up and may be revived as an industrial site.

The Tri County Alliance, an economic development consortium including Bamberg, Allendale and Barnwell counties, is working with the state Commerce Department, said Danny Black, the alliance's executive director. He would not discuss negotiations nor a price.

Site administrator Georgia Fields said Allied General bought the property from Barnwell County in the late 1960s for $300,000 to $400,000.

The 1,600 acres are now owned by a partnership involving Allied Signal, Chevron and Shell Oil.

There are adequate utilities and roads and a nearby rail line, but the concrete and steel building that was supposed to house the fuel reprocessing center would have to be torn down, Black said.

"It's a semi-attractive site," he said. "We think we've come up with some ways to use it."

The cleanup, scheduled for completion by February, involves decontaminating pipes, vats and tanks. Virgil Autry, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's director of radioactive waste management, said he expects the cost to run about $5 million.

Rejuvenating the site makes sense, said Rep. Wilbur Cave, D-Allendale. "If we can turn it into an industrial park, it would be a heck of a lot more useful to me than what's going on there right now," he said.

The plant, between the Savannah River Site nuclear complex and Chem-Nuclear's low-level waste landfill, was built in the 1970s to reprocess highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel into usable fuel for commercial reactors. But after the controversy, President Carter issued an order in 1977 effectively mothballing the $250 million plant that was supposed to employ about 250 workers.

Allied General has since handled some research and development work for the Energy Department. "We're a stepchild down here," Ms. Fields said.

In 1988, the Supreme Court refused to make the federal government compensate Allied General, which alleged it was out several hundred million dollars because of President Carter's decision.