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Pit production supporters, opponents square off during NNSA's 'virtual' public hearing

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An entrance to the Savannah River Site, which is south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

Warm support for a proposed nuclear weapons mission at the Savannah River Site clashed sharply with dissent and pointed criticism during a Thursday public hearing hosted by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm.

Elected officials and community leaders – including U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson and Rick Allen; Gov. Henry McMaster by proxy; Aiken, North Augusta and Williston mayors Rick Osbon, Bob Pettit, and Jason Stapleton; and United Way of Aiken County President Sharon Rodgers – advocated, sometimes at length and in almost-uniform fashion, for plutonium pit production south of Aiken.

"Today, we continue to stand by our support," Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Julie Whitesell said during the hearing, which was held online in light of the novel coronavirus crisis, a point of controversy in itself.

The Aiken Chamber of Commerce endorsed plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site in February 2018. The cities of Aiken and North Augusta have backed the proposed mission, as well.

Others in the three-hour meeting, including Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements, Nuclear Watch New Mexico Executive Director Jay Coghlan and Los Alamos Study Group's Greg Mello, stood firm in their opposition.

Clements described plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site as "unjustified" and provocative, citing prospective costs as well as environmental hazards. Coghlan critiqued local support and warned that the failure of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility project is evidence of the "deep troubles" riddling the National Nuclear Security Administration's weapons complex.

"So, I would urge the locals there to not necessarily count on all those dollars that they think will rain down from this new pit production mission," Coghlan said, wrapping his comments.

Federal law requires the production of 80 plutonium pits – nuclear weapon cores – per year by 2030. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, invoked regularly during the hearing, reinforces the need.

To meet the military demand, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense in May 2018 recommended forging the cores in two states. Fifty per year would be made utilizing the MOX footprint at the Savannah River Site, they jointly counseled, and 30 per year would be made at a bolstered Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico.

Either site, though, could produce 80 pits per year if need be, according to two separate-but-intertwined NNSA environmental reviews. 

Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker has suggested plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site is an ideal fit, given the site's roots. Clements, on the other hand, has drawn parallels to Colorado's Rocky Flats Plant, the pit hub that was raided by the FBI decades ago and was subsequently shuttered.

Thursday's hearing – a virtual room, seemingly self-segregated into proponents and opponents – was remarkably similar to a public hearing in North Augusta last year.

The public comment period for the Savannah River Site plutonium pit production draft environmental impact statement is open through June 2.

Comments concerning the draft environmental review can be emailed, the preferred method, to Comments can also be mailed to Jennifer Nelson, NEPA Document Manager, National Nuclear Security Administration, Savannah River Field Office, P.O. Box A, Aiken, S.C. 29802.

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