Originally created 09/22/03

SRS compete for pit facility



AIKEN - Political efforts to land a new weapons plant worth billions of dollars at Savannah River Site have surged in recent weeks, but similar lobbying for other sites makes it tough to distinguish a clear favorite.

Four other locations are being considered for the U.S. Department of Energy's Modern Pit Facility, a project that would manufacture plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons and bring plenty of financial trimmings.

The 1,500 jobs the mission could create and the annual budgets of up to $300 million led a team of legislators from Georgia and South Carolina (including Gov. Mark Sanford) to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's office this month.

Mr. Abraham, who will decide where the plant goes, said it was the strongest showing of political support he had seen for the pit facility, according to those who attended the meeting.

That was two weeks ago, however. Lobbying from other states for the new mission is reportedly just as fierce and is expected to stay that way until a decision is announced in April.

SRS is competing with the Pantex site near Amarillo, Texas; the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.; the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.; and the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, hasn't spoken with Mr. Abraham, but he did meet with Lynton S. Brooks, the director of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the senator's spokesman, Don Stewart.

The nuclear administration works hand in hand with the Department of Energy and will help decide where the facility goes.

Mr. Stewart said Texas' other U.S. senator, Kay Hutchison, also a Republican, was working hard to land the site, as are the state's U.S. House members and boosters at the local level.

"This is a thousand jobs for Texas, so there is a lot support," he said.

Nuclear experts say the Pantex site could be favored because it already houses plutonium pits. It also bodes well that President Bush was governor of the state, they say.

Politicians in New Mexico have jumped behind the Carlsbad site because officials at Los Alamos aren't eager to land the facility, said Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

"As we understand it, Carlsbad is in a good position," she said. "It's basically understood that Los Alamos is out."

The state also could benefit because of U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who serves as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which appropriates DOE's budget each year.

SRS boosters have countered their rivals high-powered ties by hiring John Sununu, a lobbyist who served as the first President Bush's chief of staff.

Not everyone is cheerleading for the DOE proposal. Environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists strongly oppose the plant. Some of them say it would open the door to making new nuclear weapons.

DOE officials counter that the nation's stockpile of plutonium pits is aging and needs to be replaced. They say there are no plans for new weapons.

Tom Clements, a member of Greenpeace International's nuclear team, said politicians aren't supporting the plant because there's a "need for the facility; it's the money the facility brings."

"The decision in the Senate to proceed with research on a new bunker buster goes hand and hand with the decision to build a new pit facility," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.