The Department of Energy's proposed nuclear pit facility withstood a major test in Congress the other day when the U.S. Senate voted 53-41 against an amendment to strip its funding. The Bush administration is seeking $22.8 million for technological development and site preparation, and if that gets final approval, the annual allocation could be almost $200 million.
The vote could be good news for the Savannah River Site, which is in heated competition with four other sites to land the lucrative project that will bring with it 1,000 jobs and $4 billion in economic development over the next several decades. Had the Senate vote gone the other way, there would have been no need for DOE to pick a site next year.
Now the project is still very much alive - the House has already passed a bill calling for $10 million - and SRS is very much in the running.
Most experts agree SRS has the most-experienced work force and the best infrastructure to house the pit facility that would manufacture the triggers for nuclear weapons. But politics could play a bigger role in DOE's site selection than competence or infrastructure.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his clout-laden Lone Star legislative delegation will be putting the pressure on a fellow Texan, President George W. Bush, to locate the facility at DOE's Pantex plant. Powerful Senate Appropriations Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., is pushing hard for the Carlsbad, N.M., plant.
With longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond's departure and the pending retirement of Sen. Ernest Hollings, no one in our two-state area has the kind of seniority clout that DeLay, Bush and Domenici do. However, as Bob Pedde, president of SRS' chief contractor, Westinghouse Savannah River Co., points out, what our delegation lacks in seniority it more than makes up for in enthusiasm and cohesion.
He's right. Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., played key roles in rallying Senate support for pit facility funding. Georgia and South Carolina lawmakers have also been active to get the project the full $22.8 million the president asked for.
And earlier this month, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., led a meeting between Georgia and South Carolina lawmakers and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. They stressed that SRS is the "major league" facility because of its 50 years of experience in dealing with plutonium.
Meanwhile, the Economic Development Partnership for Aiken and Edgefield Counties has hired John Sununu, chief of staff for the first President Bush, to lobby energy decision-makers in Washington on behalf of SRS.
All this activity is putting the Savannah River Site back on the radar screen in the nation's capital - and that's the first step to effectively compete for what may be the most valuable energy project for years to come.