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Atomic bomb factory could produce more than 1,000 jobs for SC. But how safe is it?

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Ron Socha, a cleanup coordinator at Savannah River Site, discusses how coal ash ponds are being cleaned out to prevent any contamination.

Anti-nuclear activists fired away Friday at what they said is a dangerous and little known plan to produce deadly atomic weapons components at the Savannah River Site near Aiken.

The federal government has proposed a multibillion dollar plutonium pit factory that could create as many as 1,700 jobs as part of an effort to make fresh plutonium, a major ingredient in atomic bombs.

But the proposed factory is raising concerns about its risk to the environment and the public, in addition to how it would be viewed by world leaders. Critics say the government may use the pits in a new type of nuclear weapon, instead of only replenishing the existing stockpile with fresh plutonium.

Savannah River Site Watch, a nuclear watchdog organization that tracks SRS, held a public meeting Friday night in Aiken County to brief people on the government’s plan at SRS, a 310-square-mile complex in western South Carolina.

“We don’t think people are really aware of what is going on: that this new mission is fraught with risk that could come to SRS,’’ Savannah River Site Watch director Tom Clements told The State.

Nuclear watchdog groups from New Mexico and California joined SRS Watch for the forum in Aiken County, where many SRS workers live. Before the Friday meeting, the groups held a news conference to voice concerns. The U.S. Department of Energy plans its own forum on the proposal June 27 in North Augusta.

The Energy Department is proposing to convert its failed and unfinished mixed oxide fuel plant at SRS for use as a plutonium pit plant. The cost to convert the plant could be up to $5 billion, nuclear watchdogs said.

Federal records show the new SRS plant would produce at least 50 pits for nuclear weapons each year. A federal site in Los Alamos, N.M., would produce another 30 pits, according to the government’s plan. Part of the reason for needing more pits is to refresh the nation’s aging stockpile of atomic weapons, federal officials have said.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Energy were not immediately available Friday for comment, but a public notice this week said the pits the government wants to replace were made from 1978-89. Most plutonium cores were produced at the Rocky Flats, Colo., nuclear site decades ago, but that site has since closed.

Unlike many lawyers, Bob Warren agreed to represent sick workers at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The pay has been low, but Warren has for 13 years handled their cases in hopes of gaining compensation from the federal government. He's

“Today, the United States’ capability to produce plutonium pits is limited,’’ according to a DOE public notice. The notice said producing 80 pits per year, beginning in 2030, would “mitigate the risk of plutonium aging.’’

“The security policies of the United States require the maintenance of a safe, secure and reliable nuclear weapons stockpile,’’ the public notice said.

Pro-nuclear groups say the pit plant is a good replacement for the mixed oxide fuel facility, commonly known as MOX. Not only will it provide jobs, but it will help keep the United States safe, they say.

“We are 100 percent supportive,’’ said Jim Marra, director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness. ‘’From a national defense standpoint, it is vitally important. Quite frankly, there’s no better place to do it, at least part of it, than Savannah River Site. The expertise in dealing with plutonium, and the existing work now going on with plutonium, is huge.’’

Clements and Jay Coghlan, who directs Nuclear Watch New Mexico, don’t see it that way.

“It will be a great waste of taxpayer’s money,’’ Coghlan said. “There also is a long history of chronic safety problems and environmental or waste problems associated with pit production.’’

Clements said plutonium, one of the most dangerous parts of a nuclear weapon, is toxic and a potential threat to the environment. Workers would be exposed to plutonium at SRS, and the public could be exposed to plutonium if an accident occurs, he said.

SRS was a vital cog in Cold War weapons production. Built in the early 1950s, it produced materials, such as tritium, that were used for nuclear weapons. It has been largely in a cleanup mode and looking for new missions since the early 1990s. More than 10,000 people work there.

One of the biggest questions raised by pit project critics is whether the pits are needed as badly as the DOE contends.

Existing plutonium pits, essentially the cores of nuclear bombs, have a longer shelf life than the government has recently said they have, said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CARES in California. She said past government studies have shown that. One study shows that plutonium pits can last 85- 100 years, about 25-40 years longer than previously thought.

But the issue isn’t just about replacing plutonium supplies, critics say. The government today is working on a new type of nuclear weapon the pits could be used in — and nuclear proliferation is a bad idea, they say.

“If you don’t design new nuclear weapons, you will need to do very few pits every year,’’ Kelley said. “This enterprise is not necessary, and I would argue that we need a very robust discussion here.’’

She said if the U.S. develops a new weapon and tests it, other countries may do the same, potentially leading to an escalation of nuclear arms.

Marra said he’s not opposed to plutonium pits being used for new weapons.

“’If that includes new weapons systems, I think that’s the right thing to do,’’ he said. “Our adversaries are not standing still in this regard. China and Russia are continuing to modernize their nuclear weapons, and we all know about North Korea.’’

Plans to develop the plutonium pit factory are not final. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives, discussed recently in a key committee, would derail the plan.

The Department of Energy plans to conduct an environmental impact statement on how the plant would affect the environment and human health. The current proposal isn’t the first time the DOE has brought up the matter of a new pit plant. The agency proposed a pit factory more than 17 years ago, but the plan never went anywhere.

Reach Fretwell at 803-771-8537. @sfretwell83

Sammy Fretwell covered Hurricane Hugo in 1989 while working at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. Since that time, he has written about virtually every major hurricane to come through South Carolina. Fretwell, who covers the environment for The State, is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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