While politicians debate whether Savannah River Site should receive more plutonium, SRS officials are deciding what to do with some of the plutonium that's already there.
The U.S. Department of Energy is mulling a proposal to use the federal nuclear-weapons site's FB Line facility to put the radioactive metal into a form stable enough for long-term storage.
The idea is a reversal of plans pursued in the mid-1990s, when the site was building a $300 million plant to do the work.
The decision, SRS administrator Allen Gunter said, is driven by "cost and schedule." Using FB Line would save millions and enable the site to treat the plutonium years faster than it would have before, site officials said.
But some observers worry the line is too old to perform the work safely and the site still won't have a place to store the plutonium once it's treated.
"It's rather troubling that they keep adding new missions to these old facilities," said Tom Clements, the executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington. "They can't identify when they're actually going to proceed with shutdown and decommissioning.
"Adding new missions to these old facilities certainly raises a host of environmental questions."
A site official said FB Line could be used safely, although he acknowledged that it wouldn't have the safety measures of a newer, more modern facility.
"It is our assessment that we have adequate safeguards in place, because we handle plutonium right now, to provide the safety and security needed for the material," said Mr. Gunter, the Energy Department's plutonium program manager at SRS.
Preparing FB Line to do the work could cost anywhere from $13.5 million to $29 million, compared with $300 million to build the once-heralded "Actinide Packaging and Storage Facility." That plant's high price tag was one reason the Energy Department suspended its construction in 1999.
The agency also considered spending up to $260 million to renovate the site's "235-F" building to treat the plutonium. That plan was abandoned in June, Mr. Gunter said.
Besides being cheaper, using FB Line would be faster, Mr. Gunter said. The line could begin treating plutonium in 2003, compared with 2007 or later for the other proposals, he said.
"It would allow us to complete our stabilization on an accelerated schedule," he said.
FB Line, located in the site's massive F-Canyon plant, began operating in 1997. In recent years, a number of mishaps have occurred in the line, including a Sept. 1, 2000, incident that exposed seven employees to plutonium. The metal can cause cancer if inhaled or ingested even in small amounts.
Several upgrades would be made before FB Line would be used for the new work, Mr. Gunter said. Two new furnaces would be added, as would a new welder to seal cans of newly treated plutonium.
F-Canyon's ventilation also is new, Mr. Gunter said.
"The infrastructure is up to the task of completing this mission," he said.
But once FB Line completes the task, it wouldn't be able to store the 1,000 cans of plutonium, Mr. Gunter said. A new facility, or even a renovated 235-F building, would have to provide that storage.
The Energy Department might renovate 235-F, on a smaller scale, for use as a storage area, Mr. Gunter said.
Some critics say storage should be the first item on the Energy Department's to-do list.
"From our perspective, the biggest issue is that the Energy Department has to provide long-term storage before they do anything," said Don Moniak, an Aiken resident and community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "They haven't."
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SUBHEAD:"It is our assessment that we have adequate safeguards in place, because we handle plutonium right now, to provide the safety and security needed for the material."
- Allen Gunter, the Energy Department's plutonium program manager at SRS, on storing radioactive metal