Originally created 08/07/02

DOE inspector to visit site



AIKEN - Gregory H. Friedman, the inspector general for the Department of Energy, will visit Savannah River Site today - a day after anti-nuclear activists performed their own, more restricted, inspection by tour bus.

The inspector general's tour likely will involve scrutiny of the tritium extraction facility under construction, according to the site's information officers. He also will visit other areas.

Cost overruns, according to a June audit by the inspector's office, are expected to be as high as $100 million.

The United States recycles tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, from dismantled nuclear weapons to replenish active ones. Since the end of the 1980s, the country has not made tritium or new trigger mechanisms.

The $401 million facility would restore the country's ability to make new tritium at a rate of three kilograms a year.

SRS is also a leading contender for a nuclear trigger production plant to be operational by 2020, DOE officials have said.

Anti-nuclear activists who toured SRS on Tuesday said they fear that the current administration is trying to consolidate the nation's plutonium stores at the site, putting it in a position to return to its original bomb-making mission.

Last week, an official from the National Nuclear Security Administration revealed that plutonium shipments from Rocky Flats, Colo., were under way to SRS.

The Colorado facility is being closed, and 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium is to be converted in a new mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility at SRS. The fuel will be burned in a handful of converted nuclear reactors in the Carolinas.

Energy officials say the MOX facility will make good on the 2000 U.S. agreement with Russia to reduce the nuclear threat and foster continued peace.

Don Moniak, of Aiken, a community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, was among the activists on the SRS tour.

He pointed out that the DOE goal of burning about 3.5 tons of plutonium a year as MOX fuel would mean the site would meet its commitment to Russia by 2020.

He said components of the MOX facility, which will include a plutonium purification division, could be used for weapons production.

Scientists say the United States has about 100 tons of weapons-grade plutonium that could be considered excess.

"(MOX mission completion) coincides with the start-up for new plutonium pit production," Mr. Moniak said. "It's less expensive than building a new plant."

In a July document from the nuclear-safety agency titled Revised U.S. Plutonium Disposition Strategy, officials maintain that the MOX project will cost $3.8 billion over 20 years.

Tom Clements, a spokesman for Greenpeace International who took the tour, said the latest report fails to consider operating costs, design changes and other expenses that he expects to push the program over budget.

Officials are struggling with the tritium extraction facility's more pressing overruns. Westinghouse Savannah River Co., overseeing the project with Bechtel Savannah River Inc., was asked to respond to the scathing June audit by the inspector general.

Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or eric.williamson@augustachronicle.com.