The Savannah River Site has been given an important new mission that could be even more meaningful with the inevitable push for more nuclear-generated power. A facility now under construction will convert weapons grade plutonium into fuel that can be used to power commercial reactors.
Senators from South Carolina and Georgia acknowledged the significance of the new SRS production facility last week as they toured the area under construction. Now they should ensure that it is built with every consideration to durability and safety.
An audit of the project by the Department of Energy's inspector general cited several serious deficiencies in its construction. Those included inadequate materials that could have resulted in serious safety breaches. Also troubling was the finding that contractors weren't being properly monitored by federal officials.
Project officials admit that problems exist, but say that the situation shouldn't be overstated.
"There are no indications that parts or components have been installed in the MOX facility that are inadequate to protect the public, employees and the environment as the report implies," wrote William Ostendoff of National Nuclear Safety Administration, as cited in an Associated Press report.
But the record at SRS has fallen far short of perfection in past decades. DOE and its contractors share responsibility for long delays in waste cleanup at the former nuclear weapons facility, as well as hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in excessive costs.
Scrutiny of the mixed-oxide (MOX) plant now under construction is needed to provide the necessary assurances to the people of South Carolina and nearby Georgia.
The MOX facility will revive the plant's production role and its contribution to national security. Our senators, who tout its new mission, should also insist on the requisite oversight to ensure its safe operation.