Originally created 05/30/99

Plutonium disposal key to SRS future



This summer, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson is expected to make the Savannah River Site's future official.

Mr. Richardson should sign a formal document -- in federal parlance, a "record of decision" -- to make final his announcement in December that several new nuclear-processing plants would be located at SRS, at a cost of about $1.4 billion.

The plants will bring hundreds of jobs to the site, which, ironically, laid off thousands of workers after the Cold War they had helped the United States win.

The plants also will make the site the focal point of the nation's effort to rid itself of one of the most toxic materials known to man.

They will process plutonium -- the radioactive metal that fueled the bombs that ended World War II and filled the warheads of the Cold War. At the new SRS plants, workers will try to ensure that 55 tons of U.S. plutonium never is used in weapons again.

President Clinton has declared the plutonium "excess" and directed Energy Department officials to find a way to dispose of the metal, which remains radioactive for thousands of years. Last year, then-Energy Secretary Federico Pena and his successor, Mr. Richardson, announced that the disposal work would be completed solely at SRS. That decision should be made final in coming months when the record of decision is issued.

Current plans call for three separate plants to be built at SRS. The plants would employ about 1,000 people permanently and would employ an additional 1,200 construction workers at the peak of construction, according to Energy Department documents. The site currently employs about 14,000 people.

Those new jobs would bring stability to a site that lost more than 10,000 jobs in recent years to post-Cold War cutbacks, said Ambrose Schwallie, president of Westinghouse Savannah River Co. Westinghouse operates SRS under contract with the Energy Department, which owns the site.

"What it means is that Savannah River Site will be an enduring site as the Energy Department downsizes, and that Savannah River will have very honorable and noble missions for our people to concentrate on," Mr. Schwallie said. "This will be good, sound investment in the site."

About 19 tons of the plutonium will be "immobilized," or encased within highly radioactive glass at the site's Defense Waste Processing Facility. But most of it, about 36 tons, will be processed for use in a controversial form of nuclear-reactor fuel called mixed-oxide -- MOX -- fuel.

The fuel would be used to power commercial nuclear reactors, most likely Duke Power Co. reactors in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Some nuclear scientists and activists say the use of MOX fuel in the reactors is dangerous and unnecessary, because immobilization could be used to dispose of all the plutonium.

"Whether reactor operators will accept the kind of fuel that is manufactured is not a settled question," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "There is a very large number of down sides to using MOX. The Department of Energy is rushing into MOX option without the proper research.

"Even if you're for MOX, the department is not proceeding in a sensible, technically thorough way."

But MOX supporters argue that its use will reduce the world's nuclear weapons threat by eliminating much of the stockpiled plutonium held by the superpowers of the Cold War. Russian officials have said MOX fuel is essential to the success of any mutual effort between the United States and Russia to reduce those stockpiles.

"One of the things that I think that people who are opposed to mixed-oxide fuel fail to realize is that the drive for this process is the dismantlement of nuclear weapons," said Dale Klein, chairman of the National Resource Center for Plutonium in Amarillo, Texas.

"We would look at this as a wonderful opportunity to change these weapons of mass destruction into something beneficial to humankind."

Brandon Haddock covers energy issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.