New Watchdog Group Sets Sights on South Carolina Plutonium Facility

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Workers collect samples in 2010 for an environmental remediation study at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Activists said casting a critical eye on the site's mixed-oxide fuel initiative would be a central aim for a new watchdog group formed on Wednesday.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
April 3, 2014, 8:54 a.m.

A new watch­dog group formed on Wed­nes­day with plans to place tough scru­tiny on a “prob­lem-plagued” ef­fort to turn bomb plutoni­um in­to elec­tri­city.

Act­iv­ists said a key fo­cus for their new or­gan­iz­a­tion would be lob­by­ing for al­tern­at­ive meth­ods of elim­in­at­ing 34 tons of plutoni­um un­der an agree­ment with Rus­sia. Their an­nounce­ment came in the thick of a fight over an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion bid to sus­pend work on the pro­ject, which is in­ten­ded to con­vert the weapon ma­ter­i­al in­to mixed-ox­ide power plant fuel at South Car­o­lina’s Sa­van­nah River Site.

“Our job will be to high­light to SRS pro­grams that war­rant pub­lic at­ten­tion and in­volve­ment,” said Tom Cle­m­ents, the new dir­ect­or of Sa­van­nah River Site Watch. He said the group would fo­cus on glean­ing “pos­sible les­sons to be learned” from the troubled mixed-ox­ide pro­ject, as well as back­ing pro­pos­als for oth­er “plutoni­um dis­pos­i­tion meth­ods that re­duce en­vir­on­ment­al risks to South Car­o­lina and re­duce costs to tax­pay­ers.”

“It is the De­part­ment of En­ergy’s nature to op­er­ate out­side pub­lic scru­tiny,” he ad­ded in the group’s first news re­lease.

An un­dis­closed En­ergy study re­portedly con­cluded that the so-called “MOX” Fuel Fab­ric­a­tion Fa­cil­ity likely would cost between $25 bil­lion and $30 bil­lion to com­plete. Plan­ning and con­struc­tion ef­forts have cost $4 bil­lion to date.

Frances Close, pres­id­ent of Sa­van­nah River Site Watch, said the new or­gan­iz­a­tion would con­sider a vari­ety of ad­di­tion­al “en­vir­on­ment­al prob­lems and pro­lif­er­a­tion threats” as­so­ci­ated with the South Car­o­lina com­plex.

“We will fol­low and par­ti­cip­ate in all de­cision-mak­ing pro­cesses re­lated to SRS cleanup pro­grams as well as [the] Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s [oth­er] pro­jects” at the 310-square-mile fa­cil­ity, she said in Wed­nes­day’s state­ment.

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