The Savannah River Site is under consideration by the federal
government for a factory to make key components of atomic weapons,
SRS would be part of a "large-scale" plutonium pit production
system that would begin work by 2018, according to a 2001 high-level
waste system plan.
The federal document says SRS would assemble nuclear components
for plutonium pits certified for use in war. The plutonium pit
manufacturing mission would create up to 33,600 gallons of
high-level nuclear waste annually, the report said.
Several details about the proposal were unavailable Monday,
including who must approve the factory and what would happen to the
If the factory is built, it would mark a new era in production of
atomic weapons grade materials at SRS. The site formerly produced
plutonium during the Cold War.
Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis and U.S. Rep. Lindsey
Graham, R-S.C., said the production plant would only be built if the
U.S. needed to begin large-scale production of nuclear weapons.
At this point, Graham said that is unlikely.
The U.S. is reducing the number of nuclear warheads, and the
federal government already is committed to a pit production facility
at Los Alamos, N.M, he said. That plant could produce smaller
amounts of plutonium pits, said Graham, whose district includes
Plutonium pits are spherical, metallic objects needed for atomic
"In case there is a need to ramp up in a major way, a place like
Savannah River would be more capable" of producing large-scale
weapons components than Los Alamos, Graham said. "But for this to
happen, the whole world situation would have to change. The world
situation now is we are reducing the number of warheads."
Still, anti-nuclear activist Tom Clements said the Department of
Energy's interest in SRS for plutonium pit production shows it wants
to concentrate much of the government's future plutonium work in
The DOE is embroiled in a debate with Gov. Jim Hodges over
federal plans to store and process excess plutonium so that some of
it can't be used for nuclear bombs. Hodges wants a court-approved,
federal guarantee the material will be shipped out of South Carolina
if a processing plant doesn't get built, as planned by the DOE.
But the fuel processing plant would take only about 34 metric
tons of excess plutonium out of a national stockpile of about 100
metric tons, Clements and DOE officials acknowledged.
That leaves plenty of material available for use in building new
nuclear weapons, said Clements, a senior campaigner with the
Greenpeace environmental group.
"There is the risk that once Savannah River Site becomes the
plutonium storage site, then the possibility of it becoming the site
for the new bomb factory is going to be much easier for DOE to carry
out," Clements said.
Without mentioning SRS specifically, Energy Secretary Spencer
Abraham told the House Armed Services Committee last month that the
country needs a contingency plan for a modern plutonium pit
production facility. Plans for the facility "will provide the nation
with the means to respond to new, unexpected or emerging threats in
a timely manner," he said.
Plutonium pits were formerly made at the Rocky Flats nuclear
facility in Colorado with plutonium that came from SRS. Rocky Flats
stopped producing pits in 1989 and environmental crews are cleaning
up the site.
Excess plutonium left at Rocky Flats is destined for use in mixed
oxide fuel (MOX) to be made at SRS. If a new pit production plant
were built at SRS, it would replace the process that occurred at
Rocky Flats during the Cold War, according to plans.
Jay Reiff, a spokesman for Hodges, said the governor isn't
necessarily opposed to a new plutonium pit production factory at
SRS. But the governor wants to make sure any of the toxic metal that
comes here also leaves the state in some form.
The governor's office is "familiar with the proposed plans, but
that is all speculative at this point," Reiff said of the plutonium
pit proposal. "The governor just wants to ensure this state is not a
permanent storage area for weapons grade plutonium."
A small-scale plutonium pit production plant at the Los Alamos
nuclear site in New Mexico wouldn't be enough to handle the load if
the nation needed to build up its nuclear arsenal substantially,
A 1997 DOE report stamped "not for public dissemination" said the
Savannah River Site and a nuclear site at Oak Ridge, Tenn., provided
the best options for a modern pit production system. The two
facilities would work in combination to make the plutonium pits,
according to the document obtained by The State.
The report said intact plutonium pits would be shipped to SRS
from the Pantex nuclear site in Texas.
Once in South Carolina, SRS would disassemble the pits and recast
them. Pit castings would then be shipped to Oak Ridge for finishing
before being shipped back to Pantex. Leftover residues from Oak
Ridge would be sent to SRS, the document said.
The report said SRS officials aggressively pursued the new
mission. "SRS takes the position that, given enough money, anything
can be accomplished in five years," the report said.
A second, less desirable proposal would be to have SRS do all the
work, rather than doing so in combination with Oak Ridge, records
"SRS is the only technically feasible single-site option," the