Originally created 07/10/01

Activists, residents tour weapons facility

Savannah River Site opened its gates Monday to some people concerned about plans for its future.

More than 20 activists and interested residents toured the federal nuclear-weapons site to learn more about plans to manufacture plutonium-based nuclear-reactor fuels there.

"Normally, what we hear is from the U.S. Department of Energy's headquarters, and we would like to hear directly from SRS on the ground floor about what's going on with the plutonium-disposition program," said Tom Clements, the executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.

Mr. Clements was an organizer of Monday's tour, which also included representatives from Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Georgians Against Nuclear Energy, Carolina Peace Resource Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Alliance for Nuclear Accountability.

Cheryl Jay wasn't a member of any of those groups. The Savannah resident came to investigate the site on her own.

"I'm very interested in what's going on at SRS," said Ms. Jay, who said she began monitoring the site after it spilled radioactive tritium into the Savannah River in 1991. "I wanted to come here to get a better grasp of the issues."

Ms. Jay said she wasn't impressed by plans to build a multibillion-dollar mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel-fabrication facility at SRS. The plant is intended to rid the nation of at least 36 tons of dangerous weapons-grade plutonium by using it in fuel for nuclear-power plants.

But some observers, including Ms. Jay, regard the plan as dangerous and too expensive.

"I think it's kind of a taxpayer ripoff," she said.

Many of Ms. Jay's fellow site tourists shared her view.

"I'm not against the site or against work being accomplished here," said Harry Rogers, the nuclear issues coordinator for the Carolina Peace Resource Center in Columbia. "They could have gone after responsible missions, but instead went after something that's going to make it worse here."

The site often gives tours to people who oppose the site or its work, an SRS spokesman said.

"It's always good to hear different perspectives on site operations and activities," spokesman Rick Ford said.

A botched stop on the tour did little to help the site's case. SRS workers failed to monitor the group for radiation exposure when they left the site's F-Area "tank farm," where highly radioactive liquid waste is stored in underground tanks.

The group was checked at the tour's end, and no one tested positive for radioactive contamination. But the incident, which Mr. Clements called "appalling," caused concern among many members of the group.

Site officials acknowledged their error.

"It was a mistake in our logistics plan," Mr. Ford said. "We did not intend for them to get off the bus."

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.


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