Originally created 10/14/02

SRS comeback



Despite the recent job cutbacks, the Savannah River Site's long-term future is looking better than it has in years. The optimism marks quite a change from the early '90s when SRS' future looked bleak indeed. The Soviet Union not only wasn't a threat anymore, it didn't exist.

In this more peaceful world, mutually assured destruction was no longer a rational policy. Nuclear weapons disarmament became the No.1 priority.

As the need to produce nuclear weapons materials shrank, so did SRS' work force, from about 24,000 to 13,000 or so today. By the mid-'90s it looked like SRS' future, long and short term, was simply to clean up and shut down.

Cleanup is still the site's top mission, but the likelihood of a shutdown is becoming, well, more and more unlikely.

Several new missions in the works are breathing new life into the facility. This is good, because SRS employs some of the most experienced nuclear scientists and engineers in the nation; it would be a shame not to make use of that talent.

In a recent interview with The Chronicle editorial board, Bob Pedde, president of SRS chief contractor, Westinghouse Savannah River Co., said the long-sought MOX mission, to turn weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors, is on track.

The $3.8 billion project will provide 750 jobs during construction of the MOX fabrication plant over the next six years and 400 jobs during production, which is expected to last 10 to 15 years.

Extensive expertise in handling plutonium, grouped with all its other infrastructure assets, make SRS a leading candidate to build and man a nuclear weapons trigger plant to produce plutonium-based, spherical triggers - or pits - to replace outdated pits in the U.S. arsenal. The project will cost up to $4 billion and could add more than 1,000 jobs.

Pedde and other supporters of the modern pit facility are urging the public to attend a public meeting on the project Oct. 29 at the North Augusta Community Center. Public enthusiasm for a project plays a key role in the Department of Energy's decision where to locate it.

Also developing is a role for SRS to play in an ambitious private initiative plan to build a new nuclear power plant. Again, no final site has been selected, but a top Dominion Energy Corp. official talked this week like SRS's "excellent infrastructure" put it atop the list of candidates.

The Virginia-based utility company was contracted to do the study on where to issue the first commercial nuclear power permit in 20 years. It comes from President Bush's $38.5 million budget proposal to have a new power plant built by 2010.

The Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership reports it has submitted an offer to SRS to buy thousands of acres. The Partnership's visionaries want the acreage not only to build a new commercial nuclear reactor, but to parlay it into a park to be used to demonstrate and develop new nuclear technologies.

It would provide a wonderful hands-on learning tool for nuclear scientists in training at universities throughout the Southeast.