Originally created 01/12/00

Agency's impact on SRS vague



The impact of a new nuclear security agency on Savannah River Site is uncertain, U.S. Department of Energy officials said this week.

Energy Department officials are scheduled to determine by March 1 which and how many SRS employees will fall under the purview of the new National Nuclear Security Administration, said Rick Ford, a department spokesman at the federal nuclear weapons site.

Congress created the administration last fall after reports of spying at Energy Department labs.

The agency, at first conceived to be almost entirely independent of the Energy Department, now will be under the control of the energy secretary. But the agency will have authority over the department's weapons programs and its efforts to reduce stockpiles of bomb materials.

At SRS, the Defense Programs Office is certain to become the administration's charge, Mr. Ford said. If built, proposed plutonium-processing plants at SRS also would be managed by the agency, he said.

The SRS Defense Programs Office's primary function is operation of the site's tritium facilities, which recycle the radioactive gas from dismantled nuclear weapons.

The tritium facilities have an annual budget of about $170 million and would create 1,185 longterm jobs, Mr. Ford said. An additional 500 people perform ancillary work at the plants, such as maintenance, he said.

A proposed tritium extraction facility, which would remove the gas from fuel rods used in commercial nuclear reactors, would cost about $400 million and employ an additional 250 people.

The site's nonproliferation and materials disposition offices, which track and dispose of bomb materials at SRS and other sites, likely will be merged and shuffled under the new agency, Mr. Ford said. The two offices now employ about 160 people and have a combined budget of about $23 million, he said.

The proposed plutonium plants would cost about $1.6 billion to design and construct.

Greg Rudy, the Energy Department's manager at SRS, will become the field manager for the security agency's operations at the site, Mr. Ford said.

Site officials are studying whether other employees might move under the administration, such as those in charge of computer security, Mr. Ford said. Affected employees probably won't face red tape, such as additional background checks, as a result of the shift, the spokesman said.

Two lawmakers will visit the site Thursday as part of a tour to oversee implementation of the new agency. U.S. Reps. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., are members of the Special Oversight Panel on Department of Energy Reorganization.

The new agency is not without its critics. A nuclear activist raised concerns about it Tuesday, saying it would create more bureaucracy within the Energy Department.

"I don't think this is going to solve any security problems," said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington. "In part, it could be turning the chicken house over to the foxes."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.