Originally created 12/12/04

Funding shortfall threatens facility

AIKEN - Like disappointed sports fans, supporters of Savannah River Site were forced to say "wait 'til next year" after the most recent congressional spending bill fell far short of ensuring the future of the federal nuclear site.

Earmarking $388 billion in spending for 2005, the bill doles out $1.15 billion for SRS operations and environmental cleanup, including $162.2 million for the accelerated emptying of 37 million gallons of high-level nuclear liquid waste from underground steel tanks.

"That's important," said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who as the state's senior senator is the chief political cheerleader for SRS. "That has an immediate benefit in terms of budget stability for SRS."

But short-term cleanup money isn't what SRS boosters were anticipating.

Congressional budget leaders dashed those hopes by leaving two of three crucial projects gasping for money, including the newly designated Savannah River National Laboratory and a proposed nuclear trigger factory that would employ as many as 1,500 people.

Despite these setbacks, Mr. Graham has his eye on a brighter future for SRS. During a recent telephone interview, he described his vision for a far leaner federal nuclear reservation, with fewer employees and a reduced dependency on taxpayer dollars.

He links this vision to a stern warning: Savannah River Site will never again be the massive employment center it was at the height of the Cold War, when nearly 30,000 people worked there. Nor is the site likely to maintain its current employment level of 13,000 people as the atomic and chemical legacy of the Cold War is dealt with.

"The bottom line is that we're going to have layoffs in the future out there because we're cleaning up the place," Mr. Graham said. "The work force is going to be reduced as we get the cleanup done."

Under Mr. Graham's blueprint, environmental cleanup of the site's atomic waste sets the table for the nuclear reservation's future.

"I don't want to just clean it up and close it up," he said.

Instead, he sees a smaller SRS supported by three spheres of employment activity:

 •  Science applied to specific products and technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells for cars, spinning out of Savannah River National Laboratory and attracting private investment;

 •  Continued environmental cleanup on a reduced scale;

 •  Nuclear weapons work.

This last sphere includes the production of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen gas, critical for making thermonuclear weapons, that has to be periodically replenished. It also encompasses work on the next generation of nuclear weapons and the proposed Modern Pit Facility, plus the disposal of surplus atomic bombs and warheads and conversion of their plutonium into nuclear power fuel.

Again, Mr. Graham sounds a warning. The words serve as a sobering reminder that layoffs at SRS might soon begin again, an unwelcome development supporters privately expect to resume after the holidays now that the November elections are over.

"The goal is not to create thousands of jobs out at the lab, working for the federal government," he said. "I don't want people to think we're going to create another SRS out there at the lab - that's not the goal."

Despite Mr. Graham's emphasis on private investment in lab research, the success of his blueprint is still tied to winning federal dollars for projects such as the Modern Pit Facility and the mixed-oxide fuel, or MOX, plant, which would convert surplus plutonium from old weapons into fuel for nuclear power plants.

If SRS can land the funding for these projects, employment levels might drop only to between 8,000 and 10,000, said Mal McKibben, the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, a pro-industry group based in Aiken. The smaller the federal funding, the more likely it is that employment will drop to between 4,000 and 5,000 people.

AT THE HEART OF Mr. Graham's vision is the national lab, which started out as the research arm of SRS, specializing in applied science rather than basic research.

Mr. Graham sees the facility, which was elevated to full national lab status earlier this year, as a research engine for the entire state, linked to university research centers at Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the Medical College of Georgia.

Lab scientists will work on projects ranging from hydrogen fuel cells for automobiles to new isotopes for nuclear medicine to the latest biometric security devices, he said, creating a lure for private investment from companies that want to market these technological advances.

The lab has 90 scientists with expertise in hydrogen fuel research, the largest concentration in the nation. For that reason, the focus of state and local officials has been on that area. But other fields might offer unexpected and more immediate payoffs, Mr. McKibben said.

Research in these other fields could be a short-term necessity, given the way federal funding for hydrogen has been earmarked, he said.

The primary facility for hydrogen research will be Idaho National Laboratory, which will be home to a $1 billion research reactor that will demonstrate the next generation of nuclear power plant technology and the ability of reactors to generate hydrogen, Mr. McKibben said. Under that scenario, Savannah River National Laboratory will have to fight for hydrogen fuel research money.

"We're not out of the picture. We're just not the lead dog in the pack," he said. "Discussions are under way, and we're hoping Savannah River gets a significant portion of that hydrogen research money."

The lab, which employs about 950 people, needs an additional $10 million to $15 million to place it on par with the nation's 11 other national labs, he said. This would give the local science center discretionary money for research chosen by its director, Todd Wright, along with money for two full-time staff members in Washington.

Dr. Wright also has proposed building a research reactor similar to the one being built in Idaho. It could be used as a platform to test technology for nuclear power plants, to train nuclear engineers and physicists and to create new nuclear medicine isotopes for diagnosis and therapy.

U.S. REP. GRESHAM Barrett, R-S.C., a key SRS supporter whose district includes the Aiken County portion of the federal nuclear site, is an enthusiastic supporter of building either a research reactor for the lab or a model reactor designed to take next-generation technology to a commercial scale. He sees either option as crucial to America's developing nuclear energy as an alternative to oil.

"We've just got to get moving in this direction and start developing the next generation of reactors and training the next generation of nuclear engineers," he said in an interview in Aiken County on Wednesday. "I want to see a nuclear reactor built at SRS."

But wish lists need political muscle. And in the harsh competition for federal dollars, Mr. Graham, Mr. Barrett and U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., were seriously outgunned by more senior politicians, including U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

Mr. Graham sits on the Senate Energy Committee with Mr. Domenici and Mr. Craig but is a junior member of that body.

The shutout included the Modern Pit Facility, which gets only $7 million for continued research and design work, less than half of what SRS' allies said was necessary to keep the design and research team together for the $4 billion plant.

The bill also provided no new money to boost Savannah River National Laboratory to full status, although Mr. Graham and other SRS supporters were successful in eliminating a legislative clause that restricted the steering of new projects from the U.S. Department of Energy to the local science center next year.

Even the goodies SRS got had strings attached. The proposed MOX plant got $300 million. But that money might never be spent because the project hinges on the construction of a sister plant in Russia, which has been stalled by Russian concerns over liability for the American-built facility.

If the Russian MOX plant is delayed, a congressional mandate bars construction of the SRS plant, which would employ between 500 and 700 people.

Freeing the MOX plant from delays by the Russians is crucial, Mr. Graham said. If the liability issue is not settled, he will propose legislation to remove the legal tie between the two plants.

"We either need to get resolution so construction can move forward with the Russians," he said. "If not, we need to de-link."

What they do

Savannah River Site employs about 13,000 people, 11,000 of them working for the main contractor charged with running the federal nuclear site, Westinghouse Savannah River Co. However, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham warns of further layoffs as cleanup of atomic and chemical waste and demolition of obsolete buildings winds down.

Currently, Westinghouse's employees are engaged in the following activities at SRS:

 •  Demolition and environmental cleanup: 4,000 employees

 •  Operations (includes tritium production for nuclear weapons and preparation of nuclear waste for long-term storage): 2,300 employees

 •  Field Support Services (includes engineering, safety, security, human resources and computer technology services): 2,000 employees

 •  Savannah River National Laboratory (applied research and development of national security, energy security and environmental management technologies): 950 employees

Source: Westinghouse Savannah River Co.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.


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