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Savannah River Site region deserves good portion of $600M settlement, argues AG Wilson

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Alan Wilson, First Friday Aiken, Camille Furgiuele

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson speaks with Aiken County Council member Camille Furgiuele at Newberry Hall on Friday.

A “substantial” portion of the $600 million plutonium payout secured by South Carolina earlier this year should be earmarked for the region surrounding the Savannah River Site, an installation where metric tons of the toxic material has for years been stored, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson reiterated Friday.

Exactly how much money he would like to see allotted to communities in Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties, broadly speaking, he would not say; Wilson deferred to state lawmakers, who have appropriation powers.

“It is called a federal impact fee for a reason,” the attorney general said at the Aiken Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast forum, First Friday. “The areas that are impacted by the housing of the plutonium, the economy that’s affected by it, should receive a substantial portion of that money.”

South Carolina and the Trump administration – namely the Energy and Justice departments – over the summer struck a deal after years of litigation spanning a handful of courts: The DOE promised to remove from South Carolina 9.5 metric tons of plutonium by 2037, years ahead of prior projections, and paid $600 million upfront. The settlement, sourced from a national judgement fund, is the single largest in Palmetto State history.

The plutonium cache could be processed and then disposed of at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, a process known as dilute-and-dispose; could be staged at other Energy Department complexes, similar to what was done with a half-metric ton sent to the Nevada National Security Site; or could be burned in a nuclear reactor, according to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, who spoke of preliminary plans at the end of August.

The massive undertaking will involve the department's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm, the National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as its nuclear remediation office, Environmental Management. The latter oversees the Savannah River Site.

What to do with the money – about $525 million after paying attorneys – is up to state lawmakers. Wilson on Friday complimented the Aiken County Legislative Delegation, describing its jockeying as a “very vigorous” defense.

“They are fighting for a substantial portion of that money to go to this community and the surrounding counties around SRS,” Wilson said. State Sen. Tom Young and Rep. Bart Blackwell, Aiken Republicans, were in the audience.

Gov. Henry McMaster, who has bristled with the DOE, too, earlier this year said a good bit of the purse deserves to go to the greater Aiken County region.

The area “ought to receive at least the majority, a good majority, of these funds in one way or another,” McMaster told the Aiken Rotary Club. In a brief November exchange, the Republican governor acknowledged “there are discussions going on. I know the people in the area around the Savannah River Site would like to see some of that investment go there.”

The Aiken Municipal Development Commission, an economic development panel that advises the Aiken City Council, in a September letter demanded the $525 million be given to Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties.

“The risk of SRS operations and shipping/storing plutonium rests squarely within these three counties,” reads the letter, which was addressed to Wilson. It continues, “Any effort to exploit the settlement proceeds for unrelated state projects would be a disservice to those communities who share the ongoing risk.”

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the Energy Department, its NNSA, and government and politics, in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin.

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