Originally created 05/11/04

SRS awaits pit facility decision



AIKEN - A highly anticipated report on the nation's nuclear stockpile that could have a direct effect on future work at the Savannah River Site has been completed and will be given to Congress within weeks, a key energy official said Friday.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has delayed its decision on where to build a multibillion-dollar plutonium trigger-production plant until it outlines current and future conditions of the country's nuclear arsenal.

Linton Brooks, the agency's administrator, said the report was being reviewed for submission to Congress. Mr. Brooks, who accompanied Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to SRS on Friday to recognize the Savannah River National Laboratory, declined to discuss the document or which of the five potential sites he favored. Also vying for the $4 billion plant, called the modern pit facility, are the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas; the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, both in New Mexico, and the Nevada Test Site.

"You can't make intelligent decisions if you don't know what the stockpile is," Mr. Brooks said.

Some members of Congress have questioned the need for the plant, which would build plutonium pits used to detonate nuclear weapons. Mr. Brooks' office originally planned to release a final environmental impact statement and site selection in April but announced in January that the decision would be delayed until Congress could review the status of the country's nuclear stockpile and its future needs.

"In my view, it is a complete mistake to reopen the nuclear door, so I am pleased that the administration has recognized - in light of congressional concern - that consideration of a modern pit facility is 'premature,' at least," U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement she issued in January.

Congressional delegates from South Carolina and Georgia have campaigned to have SRS build the bomb-rigger facility. U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., recently wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urging that the decision be made sooner rather than later.

A spokeswoman for his office said Mr. Barrett had hoped to already have received the report.

SRS supporters contend that the site's extensive experience with plutonium and its vast infrastructure make it the best selection.

"We have said from the beginning, if (Mr. Brooks) makes his recommendation to the secretary based on technical and economical matters, that SRS will win," said Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. "The secretary has to deal with the politics of it."

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