AIKEN - The MOX fabrication plant at Savannah River Site may turn out to be the linchpin to continued peace with Russia, but observers are trying to keep its local impact in perspective.
The Department of Energy says the project will create more than 1,000 jobs over its planned life span - about 750 construction jobs, then about 400 full-time jobs when the plant begins production.
The plant is scheduled to make the mixed-oxide fuel for more than a decade.
Fred Humes, the director of the Economic Development Partnership of Aiken and Edgefield counties, said the plant's long-term employment is the equivalent of a major new private industry being announced for the area - although the federal government won't be paying into the tax base.
Regardless, he said, the project will have a positive economic impact.
"If you look at what those jobs will pay and the type of people they will bring in, there is an upside in the community," he said.
Management and project experts will come from as far away as France. About half of the high-paying jobs - salary figures have not been released - will be filled by local workers.
Frank Roberson, the associate superintendent of instruction for the Aiken County school system, said he looks forward to the cultural diversity the eight French families in particular will add to the schools in the next few years.
Fuel fabrication could begin at the plant as early as 2008.
According to an agreement the United States signed with Russia in 2000, each country is to dispose of at least 2 tons of weapons-grade plutonium a year until each has eliminated 34 tons. The U.S. goal, however, is to dispose of 3 1/2 tons of plutonium a year. DOE spokesman Joe Davis said the total plutonium that would be eliminated is enough for 8,500 nuclear weapons.
But that tonnage could be increased, in turn expanding the number of years the mission lasts. Both nations have more than 100 tons of weapons plutonium.
The tradeoff is the danger involved in transporting and handling plutonium. DOE boasts 1.6 million transport miles without incident.
But anti-nuclear groups point out that DOE's record is not without blemish. A government transport carrying nuclear materials overturned in a Nebraska snowstorm in 1996. It took nine hours for authorities to determine that there had been no radioactive release. DOE's team arrived 15 hours after the incident.
Mr. Davis said the end result of MOX will be a safer world.
"We are trying to keep the world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous people," he said. "This program is aimed at preventing the theft or diversion of surplus plutonium by terrorists or rogue nations."
Many who live and work near the gates of SRS said they see more good than bad in the coming of MOX.
Frampton Eaves, the owner of Eaves Oil Co. Inc. in New Ellenton, views the new mission as one more way to keep the site and the surrounding community viable, given the job losses in recent years.
"Savannah River Site has been good to our community for a long time," Mr. Eaves said. "The plutonium is already out there. It's better in a safe facility like this."
COST OF U.S. PROJECT: At least $3.8 billion
NUMBER OF JOBS FOR SRS: 750 for construction, 400 during production
LENGTH OF MISSION: 10-12 years
REDUCTION IN WEAPONS (UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA): 8,500
Reach Eric Williamson at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.