Originally created 11/29/00

Residents gather to honor plant



"The bomb plant" turned 50 with a bang Tuesday.

Lured by a fireworks show, more than 1,000 people flocked to Riverwalk Augusta to honor Savannah River Site's 50th anniversary.

The federal nuclear-weapons site - often dubbed "the bomb plant" by locals even though it never produced entire weapons, only the radioactive materials needed to fuel them - was chartered by President Truman on Nov. 28, 1950.

To commemorate the anniversary, families enjoyed free admission to Fort Discovery, exhibits about the site and a 20-minute fireworks display, and an appearance by U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.

"I would not have missed this for anything," said Mr. Richardson, who made his fifth appearance in the Augusta area Tuesday, more than any previous energy secretary.

Mr. Richardson, like many of his fellow speakers, thanked local residents for their support of the federal nuclear-weapons site.

He noted in particular the site's 6,000 former residents, who had to abandon land slated for the 310-square-mile site only months after plans for it were announced.

"The effort took its toll," Mr. Richardson told the crowd gathered at Jessye Norman Amphitheater. "It forced the relocation of entire communities and changed lives forever.

"Fifty years later, SRS is a testament to human sacrifice, dedication to excellence and patriotism."

Mr. Richardson also used the opportunity to announce the creation of a federal effort to write a history of the Atomic Age.

The Glenn T. Seaborg Fellowship in Nuclear History will allow Ph.D. candidates to spend one year in Washington to help research and write the record, Mr. Richardson said.

The Energy Secretary said he was inspired to create the program by John Granaghan, a former SRS executive who spoke about the site's history during a July visit by Mr. Richardson.

"We are going to do what John Granaghan started here," the secretary said.

The fellowship is named after the physicist and Nobel Laureate who worked on the United States' World War II effort to build the atomic bomb.

Tuesday's party was the culmination of a daylong series of events, more than two years in the planning, to recognize the site's anniversary.

The agenda included a reunion of former residents of Ellenton, Dunbarton, and other towns made extinct by SRS, and the dedication of a monument to those residents off South Carolina Highway 125.

"You gave your homes so that today, someone could own a home," U.S. Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the many former residents gathered at the monument's unveiling.

"You left your homes, your churches and your schools so that people 50 years later would know freedom," Mr. Graham said. "Ladies and gentlemen, well done and God bless you."

Residents crowded around the granite marker after the ceremony for photographs and banter.

"I wasn't sure at first of what it really meant, but now I see it really means a lot to a lot of people," said Kimberly Badger, a Barnwell High School senior and SRS employee who helped unveil the marker.

The day started at 8 a.m. in an SRS cafeteria, where South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, and numerous SRS and federal officials gathered to thank the site's employees.

"I can't ever recall when we've had such an accumulation of honored guests," said Joe Buggy, president of SRS contractor Westinghouse Savannah River Co., to the crowd of more than 400 site employees.

Mr. Hodges praised site employees and his state's residents for their efforts to produce the radioactive materials needed for the bombs of the Cold War.

"South Carolinians have an extraordinary sense of place," he said. "What an outstanding legacy we can leave behind when we can say we did something for our country."

Although Mr. Barnes and the Energy Department recently have locked horns over environmental issues, the Georgia governor also used Tuesday's opportunity to thank and praise the site's employees.

"You helped to deliver peace to a world we enjoy today," Mr. Barnes told the assembled crowd of more than 400 site employees. "America owes you, and the citizens who sacrificed for SRS, a huge debt of gratitude.

"The work of SRS and its scientists were America's first line of defense."

Not everyone was in the mood to call Tuesday's events a celebration.

"I don't think they should celebrate," said Don Moniak, an Aiken resident and community organizer for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a watchdog group. "A commemoration is OK, but the word celebration is a little much.

"Fifty years from now, hopefully everybody will be celebrating that the plant is a little safer."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 .