Originally created 08/27/99

SRS plan for project supported



NORTH AUGUSTA -- Savannah River Site scientists said Thursday that they remain committed to a proposed $1.9 billion "melt-and-dilute" plant, despite recent setbacks to the program.

"We believe we should proceed cautiously and prudently, but at the same time, we think it is very realistic to make this successful," said Natraj Iyer, manager of spent-fuel technology at the federal nuclear weapons site's Savannah River Technology Center.

"The path we are on, we are not taking anything for granted," Dr. Iyer told members of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board during a meeting in North Augusta.

The melt-and-dilute plant would dispose of some spent nuclear reactor fuel by melting the aluminum rods, which also contain weapons-grade uranium.

The molten metal would be mixed with weaker uranium, then molded into metal disks suitable for longterm burial.

Many nuclear activists laud the plan, saying it reduces the world's nuclear danger by making the uranium unusable in atomic weapons. But the project suffered a setback in June, when it briefly shut down after money ran out.

The project has drawn criticism from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The federal review board stated that the project was risky, and that existing SRS plants could do the job.

On Thursday, Dr. Iyer said SRS scientists are developing solutions to the technical questions outlined by the safety board.

Design of the plant won't begin until the melt-and-dilute process has been demonstrated successfully, said David Huizenga, an acting deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns SRS.

"We certainly have the defense board asking some tough technical questions that we have to respond to," Mr. Huizenga said.

"I expect them to be able to answer those questions," he continued, gesturing toward Dr. Iyer. "It would surprise me if the people in this community and on this board, who have lived and worked together with us for years, would think that we would design a half-baked facility that was going to fail and endanger everybody."

Despite the assurances, some members of the citizens board raised questions about the melt-and-dilute plan.

Robert Overman said he believed SRS officials rubber-stamped the project, without questioning its viability.

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