Originally created 05/16/03

Officials change strategy for SRS



AIKEN - Savannah River Site may not land the $1.1 billion project that politicians had been pursuing, but U.S. legislators say they now have their eyes on bigger missions.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, a Republican representing South Carolina's 3rd District, said politics and sacrifices often play a part in winning new jobs.

Mr. Graham said he is no longer pursuing a next-generation nuclear reactor - demonstration technology the government hopes will lead to a revival of the nuclear industry.

The project apparently is going to the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Wording giving Idaho the preference was placed in the Senate's energy bill by Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on behalf of Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho.

Mr. Barrett said he is still hopeful of getting the project, but Mr. Graham called it "a harder sell for us now."

When asked whether he had struck a deal in exchange for support of other SRS interests, Mr. Graham responded, "You know politics."

He did not elaborate.

Mr. Graham and Mr. Barrett said their latest effort is pursuing national laboratory status for SRS.

SRS already has a technology center and could benefit from increased federal funding, especially in the area of hydrogen research, if granted the designation.

The site has decades of experience handling tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.

"It would be like going from Triple-A to the majors," Mr. Graham said.

Seeking national lab status is one of the top three items on the local delegation's wish list.

The others are a plant that would replace the nation's nuclear weapons triggers, called a modern pit facility, and a plant that would turn surplus weapons plutonium into commercial reactor fuel dubbed MOX.

"If you have priorities, MOX is No. 1," Mr. Graham said. The $3.8 billion mixed-oxide fuel project would create about 750 construction jobs and about 400 full-time jobs.

About $400 million in initial MOX plant construction funds was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee on Monday.

It was part of a package that could deliver as much as $1.7 billion in defense-related funding to SRS for next year.

Final approval is contingent on how voting goes in months ahead.

Mr. Graham also knows it will take more than a year of funding to see MOX to completion.

The government has yet to name the location of the pit facility, which is competing with four other locations, including two in Mr. Domenici's home state.

Observers say Gov. Mark Sanford's support is crucial for landing any project.

Mr. Sanford, who has been in office for six months, has not been publicly outspoken about MOX or other SRS projects.

Will Folks, his press secretary, said the governor is not on the sidelines.

"He met with (Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham) the first week after his election. They've continued to discuss all of the pressing issues facing our state with regard to SRS, MOX production and pit production.

"Obviously the governor campaigned on quality of life, so he is aware of that component of the debate. Now what you see today is a cooperative dialogue between the state of South Carolina and the Department of Energy as opposed to what you've had before: political grandstanding."

Mr. Graham said the governor's perceived silence is simply reflective of his personality - a contrast to that of former Gov. Jim Hodges, who threatened to lie in the road to prevent plutonium shipments to SRS for the MOX project. Mr. Hodges had sought guarantees that the dangerous material would leave SRS as planned.

But the election-year maneuver backfired and is believed by many leaders to have left a stigma on South Carolina for future Energy Department projects.

Mr. Graham said he met with Mr. Sanford in Columbia last week to discuss strategies for SRS.

"I want people at home to know our governor is very sensitive to the future of the site. There will be no lying down in the road," Mr. Graham said.

Mr. Barrett also referenced a recent letter the new governor sent to Mr. Abraham in support of the modern pit facility.

"He's on board with the facility 100 percent," the congressman said.

Landing new work at SRS also means building coalitions to influence the undecided, Mr. Barrett said.

Mr. Barrett said an open house at SRS is planned for the congressional break in August. He said state and national representatives, particularly freshmen lawmakers, will be invited.

"We want to make sure we get them down there and tell them our story," Mr. Barrett said. "We think we have the best facility in the nation."

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