Originally created 11/06/06

Plutonium center proposed

AIKEN - Residents around Savannah River Site have a chance this week to tell federal officials what they want the nuclear installation to look like come 2030, including whether it should expand its weapons-making business.

The National Nuclear Security Administration wants to consolidate work at SRS and seven other sites to make the country's aging nuclear complex more secure.

Part of the administration's plan includes the creation of a consolidated plutonium center that would research and develop the radioactive substance, store it and manufacture it into triggers for nuclear weapons.

The security administration, a weapons arm of the Department of Energy, hasn't finalized costs for the plutonium center or said how many jobs it would create. Agency officials will answer questions about the plan Thursday.

If the past is any indicator, the turnout could be large. Hundreds of people turned out in 2004 when the DOE proposed a plutonium trigger factory at SRS.

Though details are few, the current plan already has supporters and critics.

"It seems to be a well-thought-out activity," said Ernie Chaput, a former DOE manager who said he'll speak in favor of the consolidation center.

Dr. Ed Lyman, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the "focus should be de-emphasizing our nuclear arsenal.

"We're not sure what kind of message this reorganization is showing," he said. "It's certainly a mistake to pursue a retooled nuclear complex that gives the impression that the U.S. has plans to maintain a large stockpile of nuclear weapons for the indefinite future."

The center would be capable of making 125 plutonium "pits," or triggers used to detonate a nuclear weapons, every year, and the center would be designed for a 50-year lifetime, nuclear security agency officials say.

There are four other sites across the country under consideration for the center, all of which have some experience with plutonium: Los Alamos, N.M.; Nevada Test Site; Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas; and Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

SRS boosters say the site has the work force, infrastructure and decades of experience handling plutonium to successfully manage the proposed center. It already stores quantities of the material that isn't being used for weapons.

It also has a tritium extraction facility that will go operational next year. Tritium is a form of radioactive hydrogen that is another component of nuclear weapons.

"You don't find that combination anywhere else," Mr. Chaput said.

The security administration's preferred action is creating the consolidated plutonium center, but there are two other options: taking no action at all and reducing operations and creating a "capability-based complex."

"In this alternative, NNSA would maintain a basic capability for manufacturing technologies for all stockpile weapons ... (but) would not have a production capacity sufficient to meet current national security objectives," agency documents show.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.


The issue: Federal officials are considering a plutonium center at SRS that would research and manufacture weapons.

What it would do: The consolidated plutonium center will be designed for a 50-year lifetime. It will have the capacity to produce 125 pits, or bomb triggers, per year. The number of pits produced annually during that time will be defined by presidential decisions on the size and composition of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Plan: The baseline plan is to build pits for replacement nuclear warheads that meet the same mission characteristics of existing warheads. Any changes to this baseline must be directed by the president and authorized/funded by Congress.

Stockpile: The detail numbers are classified. However, the United States and Russia have both ratified the Moscow treaty that limits the number of operationally deployed strategic warheads to a range of 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. President Bush has also directed that the total stockpile be reduced by nearly half, which will mean that by 2012 the stockpile will be the smallest since the Eisenhower administration.


What: Officials will hold meetings on the issue of having a plutonium center at SRS.

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday

Where: North Augusta Community Center at 495 Brookside Ave.

Source: National Nuclear Security Administration


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