NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Many community leaders here welcome a possible $4 billion plutonium pit facility at the Savannah River Site, saying it would bring hundreds of new jobs, but environmentalists aren't sure it's worth the health risk.
The Department of Energy is expected to decide in April on the pit project, and choose from among SRS and four other sites. A public meeting on an environmental study of the pit plant will be held Monday in North Augusta.
An initial screening by the Energy Department ranked SRS second, behind the Los Alamos, N.M., National Laboratory. Other sites being weighed are the government's Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.; and the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas.
Protesters showed up Tuesday at the Los Alamos, N.M., site. The South Carolina meeting, however, promises a more welcoming group of politicians, civic leaders and economic-development officials.
The new facility could offer as many as 1,800 new jobs for up to 50 years. SRS now employs more than 13,000 people.
"There is no nuclear Department of Energy site in the country whose community supports it more strongly. I guarantee you we'll have every mayor within 50 miles there supporting it," said Mal McKibben, a retired SRS nuclear chemist and director of the pro-nuclear Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken.
While Texas and New Mexico have the support of powerful Western senators, SRS offers a unique 50-year history of handling plutonium.
For decades SRS supplied the nation's nuclear arsenal with plutonium, producing 36 tons between 1953 and 1988. Since then the site's chief mission has been cleaning up and stabilizing the millions of gallons of waste left behind.
"SRS is all about plutonium. So I've got to say it looks like the logical choice, if you follow that line of reasoning, which we don't," said Glenn Carroll of Georgians Against Nuclear Energy.
Opponents like Carroll don't believe the U.S. needs more weaponry. More than 12,000 pits already are stored at Pantex, where nuclear weapons are assembled.
More than 125 advocacy groups urged Congress last month to block the pit plant, saying it would waste money, endanger the public and pose a security risk.
DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration says its weapons are aging. While no significant degradation has been detected, an agency report said last month, the nation's nuclear stockpile could become unreliable as impurities and corrosion accumulate.
The nation hasn't had a source of pits since the DOE's Rocky Flats plant in Golden, Colo., was shut down in 1989. As an interim measure, Los Alamos will begin making up to 20 pits a year in 2007. The full-scale plant will make 125 to 450 a year.
SRS currently recycles tritium from dismantled weapons, and in 2007 will open a new tritium-extraction facility. It also has also been chosen as the site of a new plant to make mixed-oxide, or MOX, fuel, using 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium.
Unlike former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, who threatened to lie down in front of incoming tractor-trailers bearing plutonium, new Republican Gov. Mark Sanford has embraced the plant projects.
Within a week of taking office in January, Sanford met with U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to support both the MOX and plutonium-pit projects.
"From an economic development and quality-of-life standpoint, the governor has been very involved," said spokesman Will Folks. "He sees it as an opportunity for Savannah River to have a new mission."
Not everyone is happy about the plant's possible new mission. The Rev. Charles Utley leads a nearby community group in Augusta, Ga., whose members have complained for years that chemicals from surrounding industries have tainted their neighborhoods.
"They're afraid," said Utley, community organizer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. "Patriotism is fine and jobs are fine, but good health would supersede both of them."