NORTH AUGUSTA — Vocal support for producing nuclear weapon cores at the Savannah River Site sharply contrasted with questions, criticism and pushback Thursday night at a government-led public forum.
The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration wants to produce 50 of the weapon components each year at the sprawling complex near Aiken. The cores, known as plutonium pits, use one of the world's most dangerous substances to trigger a series of explosions that unleash the deadly potential of nuclear weapons.
Supporters tout the economic benefits of the project, which would create about 1,000 jobs and provide a new anchor for SRS after the government abandoned its long-delayed efforts to finish a facility designed to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants.
Critics, however, remain skeptical of the proposed mission and worry about the potential risks to the environment and workers' health.
A slew of officials, including Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon, Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker and Jim Marra of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, voiced support for the effort, offering their takes on why SRS is the correct fit for the looming weapons-oriented mission.
Encouragement also came from several chambers of commerce, University of South Carolina Aiken, and state and federal lawmakers. S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, an Aiken Republican, spoke in favor of pit production at the site; he represented the Aiken County legislative delegation and submitted a letter of support from its members. Taylor had also voiced strong support for the project in an interview with The Aiken Standard earlier this month.
“We have the expertise, we have the facilities, we have the ability,” he told the newspaper.
Brinsley Thigpen, representing U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, read a letter of strong support into the record as well. Allen is a Georgia Republican who has worked closely with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican. Both are SRS advocates.
Nuclear watchers and other groups, however, took aim at the effort's multibillion-dollar projected cost, as well as potential dangers from exposing the environment and workers to plutonium.
“What is the environmental impact of a nuclear weapon?” Glenn Carroll, with Nuclear Watch South, said Thursday. “The absolute and wholesale destruction of the environment. Every human, every animal. Every plant.”
The anticipated costs of pit production have raised eyebrows in Washington, D.C. A congressional budget report published this year estimated pit production would cost $9 billion over the next decade.
Among other things, SRS Watch Director Tom Clements said the pit production process was off to a "rocky start."
"The project is not funded by Congress, it's not authorized by Congress," he said.
Clements, alongside Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, hosted a pit production forum earlier this month at the Aiken Municipal Building. He and others urged opponents to push back against the plan.
The public "can be effective against bad Department of Energy ideas, like the pit production one," Clements said at the time.
One Aiken resident on Thursday described the pit production effort at SRS as hurried, and a woman representing The Human Family organization expressed concerns about earthquakes and becoming a target of terrorism.
At least 80 plutonium pits per year are needed by 2030 to keep America's nuclear arsenal updated and ready, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Pit production opponents have questioned the need for more cores.
"They keep coming up with this number, 80, and I don't know where they get this from," Clements said earlier this month. "They haven't justified it.”
To reach 80 pits per year, the NNSA and the U.S. Department of Defense in May 2018 jointly recommended producing 50 pits per year at SRS and the remaining 30 per year at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The two-site approach provides production fallbacks and assurances, energy and defense executives have said.
"DOD stood up and said, 'We've looked at your alternatives, and we believe there is value in having two sites,'" Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Peter Fanta said in February.
Pit production at SRS, more specifically, would be done at a repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, the project that was abandoned last year, according to the joint recommendation.
The NNSA terminated the MOX project — which was over-budget and congressionally controversial — on Oct. 10, 2018. The government had shoveled almost $8 billion into the effort by that point, but it remained years and billions of dollars away from completion.
Clements on Thursday told the audience the Energy Department and others are attempting to "sweep the MOX debacle under the rug."
The NNSA hosted the meeting to collect public comments on pit production and a related environmental assessment.