Originally created 03/11/01

Production potential upsets some activists



Not long ago, Savannah River Site was chosen to take apart the radioactive triggers of the nation's nuclear weapons. In the future, it might be responsible for putting them together.

Although a decision won't be made for some time, some nuclear activists are concerned about the possibility that the federal nuclear-weapons site could become the nation's next producer of "pits," the radioactive cores of nuclear weapons.

The possibility stands in sharp contrast to an activity already planned for the site: dismantling the nation's thousands of surplus pits and using the radioactive plutonium inside to produce mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel for nuclear-power plants.

"It's very dangerous work," Don Moniak, an Aiken resident and community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said of pit production.

"It's something that's never been done at the site, this plutonium machining, and machining of plutonium is not an easy thing."

Plutonium machining shapes the raw metal into a component for a nuclear weapon.

Andrew Grainger, the site's compliance officer for the National Environmental Policy Act, said last month that SRS officials were prepared to write a report detailing the impact of a pit-production plant on the local environment, economy and public health.

But work on a report is not under way, and it is too early to speculate whether the site will be selected for any new plant or even whether such a plant will be built, Mr. Grainger said.

The United States' ability to build pits has been limited since 1989, when the Department of Energy stopped production at Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver. The shutdown at Rocky Flats was driven by environmental issues.

But new pits will be needed to replace aging ones in the nation's nuclear-weapons stockpile, according to reports by government researchers and outside observers.

New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory was selected in 1996 to produce 20 to 50 pits annually to replenish the stockpile. Savannah River Site was selected as a backup location if the nation needed to build weapons rapidly.

SRS officials are involved in a study of whether a new plant will be needed, site officials acknowledged.

"SRS is assisting the Nuclear National Security Administration and the national labs in analyzing the mission needs for a pit-production facility that would have higher capacity than what is currently planned for Los Alamos National Laboratory," said Rick Ford, an Energy Department spokesman at SRS.

"The nuclear-weapons council agrees with the NNSA that pit-aging studies should be linked to a final go-ahead decision for a larger pit-production facility," Mr. Ford said. "In addition, the results of the ongoing Department of Defense nuclear-posture evaluation may factor into the need for a modern pit-production facility."

If the site were to become a producer of pits, it would mark the first time that SRS has made entire components of nuclear weapons. The site produced tritium and plutonium for weapons during the Cold War, but never assembled weapons components.

Nevertheless, the site would be a natural choice for a new pit-production plant, some SRS boosters said.

"There really is no doubt that SRS from many perspectives is the site to do that," said J. Malvyn McKibben, executive director of Citizens For Nuclear Technology Awareness, an Aiken pro-nuclear group.

"We have all the infrastructure, we have a large physical facility and we have all of the technical expertise to do that better than anybody," Mr. McKibben said. "I really believe that it will happen.

"It would be a very small facility, but it would be very much in the national interest to have that facility. You need to have somewhere in the country to make pits. It's not going to happen at Rocky Flats anymore.

"The only way I think anybody could object to it is if they objected to the nation maintaining a nuclear-weapons stockpile."

But Mr. Moniak said some local residents might be angered by the prospect of the site becoming a more active producer of weapons materials, particularly after some SRS boosters championed the MOX mission as an effort to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

"A lot of people who were on the fence about the MOX mission were obviously swayed by the rhetoric of nonproliferation and making the world safer," he said. "Most people I have talked to have a hard time understanding why the United States would need new plutonium pits.

"It shows that SRS keeps portraying itself as being in a cleanup mode, but they have gotten more and more into a production mode. It's a production site for tritium as it is, and now they are looking into becoming a production site for plutonium fuel and for pits."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.