New Watchdog Group Sets Sights on South Carolina Plutonium Facility

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
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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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