By Bloomberg News
Originally Published: Jul 9, 2020
(Bloomberg) — A factory along South Carolina’s Savannah River produced tritium and plutonium for U.S. nuclear weapons during the Cold War, employing thousands of workers but leaving behind a toxic legacy of radioactive waste.
Now the Trump administration has proposed spending $9 billion over 10 years to restart production of bomb parts there and at another site. The plan has raised the welcome prospect of new jobs though also rekindled environmental fears. And it’s set off alarms about a new nuclear arms race just as key treaties with Russia lapse.
“It’s a waste of money and dangerous,” said Stephen Young, an expert on arms control and international security issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
President Donald Trump’s plan, announced by the departments of Energy and Defense in 2018, calls for restarting production of nuclear bomb ‘pits’ at the South Carolina site and another one in New Mexico. The bowling-ball sized spheres of plutonium act as the trigger in a nuclear warhead, setting off the explosive chain reaction.
The U.S. hasn’t produced them on an industrial scale for nearly three decades. The National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department arm responsible for manufacturing nuclear warheads for the Defense Department, says the existing ones need to be replaced because they are getting old and the technology has advanced to make them safer, an idea endorsed by Congress and Barack Obama when he was president.
“The United States cannot postpone re-establishing this critical capability,” the NNSA says on its website. “Delaying the restoration of this capability could result in significant cost increases and risks to national security.”
While restarting production of nuclear weapons triggers was backed by Obama, the Trump administration has proposed increasing funding for the effort by 72% over existing levels and repurposing a facility at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site, in Aiken County, South Carolina.
The plan calls for producing at least 80 pits a year: 50 at Savannah River and 30 at an existing site in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Legislation that would authorize the first $1.4 billion of the Trump administration’s request is expected to be approved by the Senate when it returns later this month. The House is working on its own version for the same amount that could be subject to amendment from Democrats who have expressed reservations about the plan.
A decision by the NNSA on the Savannah River plan could come this fall.
The community around the Savannah River Site is split between those who are concerned about contamination and those eager for the jobs as the region’s economy suffers along with the rest of the country during the pandemic. The site is still one of the state’s largest employers having produced nuclear materials for non-defense purposes since 1988, including the space program, and medical and research efforts. Moving forward with pit production at the site would create more than 1,000 jobs.
But the 200,000-acre facility was named an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund priority clean up site in 1989 partly due to 37 million gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste stored in tanks on the premises.
Nevertheless, the Aiken County Council twice unanimously passed resolutions supporting the return of plutonium pit production. “It makes sense from the environmental, economic and technical perspectives,” Gary Bunker, chairman of the Aiken County Council, testified during an April hearing on the proposal held by the NNSA.
Others aren’t convinced.
“To me, they haven’t proven that this is going to be safe,” said Pete LaBerge, a 70-year-old retiree who lives about three miles away from the Savannah River Site in nearby Windsor, which has 150 residents. He worries about a release of radiation. “Part of my theory is it’s sort of a make-work program for the Energy Department.”
Opponents of the project say they fear it could suffer the same fate as the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the site, which was canceled because of cost overruns and delays after some $8 billion of taxpayer money was spent on the project. Several metric tons of weapons grade plutonium, transferred from Russia to be converted into nuclear reactor fuel, remains on the property with nowhere to go.
“This isn’t like, I don’t know, remodeling a bowling alley into a restaurant,” Representative Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee said during a committee vote. He said he was “worried that we are going to spend billions of dollars, just like we did on the MOX facility, to get nothing.”
The Institute for Defense Analyses examined the proposal to manufacture pits in both Los Alamos and the South Carolina site and concluded the projects wouldn’t be possible on the proposed schedules and budgets. The Alexandria, Virginia-based non-profit said success was “far from certain.”
“We don’t want more plutonium in here to be stranded,” said Tom Clements, director of Savannah River Site Watch, a non-profit watchdog group. “How are they going to build new pits at a site that has no experience? They can’t even make any now. They should try to demonstrate it at Los Alamos before trying to at Savannah River.”
Plutonium pit production has a checkered past. The nation’s previous home for nuclear pit production, the Energy Department’s Rocky Flats site 16 miles northwest of Denver, Colorado, at its peak produced 2,000 bomb pits a year. But it was shutdown after a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and EPA in 1989. An Energy Department contractor, Rockwell International Corp., signed a plea agreement in 1992 for violating environmental laws and paid an $18.5 million fine. The area, also a Superfund site, has been closed for 28 years
And the work can be fraught with risk. Lethal accidents can occur when too much plutonium is gathered together creating an uncontrolled chain reaction.”There would be a flash of neutrons that can be lethal,” said Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog group. “It’s localized to the room you are in, but it would literally fry people.”
Politics at Play?
Other concerns include the increases in nuclear waste, accidents and fires that could spread fallout throughout surrounding communities.
The Trump administration’s plan, which over 50 years would result in enough plutonium pits to replace those in each of the nation’s roughly 4,000 nuclear weapons, comes as experts are divided on whether the current pits, nearly all of which were produced between 1978 and 1989, need to be replaced, and how soon. A 2007 report by JASON, the interdependent group of scientists who advise the government, concluded that most pits have lifetimes in excess of 100 years.
“I think the old ones work just fine,” said Sharon Weiner, a nuclear weapons expert who is a professor at American University. “I think we are safe to make the assessment that the pits in the nuclear weapons are good enough that we can postpone this decision for a significant period of time and maybe during that time we we have new arms control agreements.”
Trump, who has promised to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal, has bowed out of arms control agreements, particularly with Russia. He argues that Moscow was in violation of them. The Obama-era New START pact is set to expire in February and talks between the U.S. and Russia resumed last month.
Supporters of the project counter that being unable to produce plutonium pits for new nuclear warheads puts the nation’s security at risk.
“It’s alarming,” said John Harvey, who previously held senior positions overseeing U.S. nuclear weapons policy for both the Departments of Defense and Energy. “Eventually we are going to have to replace these things, they don’t live forever.”
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