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Editorial: SC must make sure SRS pit production comes with conditions

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Convenience container with plutonium oxide PowerPoint Presentation (copy)

A container of plutonium oxide. Provided.

We can get behind the idea of producing nuclear bomb cores at the Savannah River Site if that mission is tied to moving more plutonium out of South Carolina.

The state unfairly has been stuck with 11.5 metric tons of the radioactive material since the demise of SRS’s mixed-oxide project for turning surplus plutonium into nuclear fuel.

The new mission would breathe life into SRS at a time when it needs it and sustain up to 2,000 jobs for decades. Over time, the finished cores are supposed to be moved to the Pantex bomb plant northeast of Amarillo, Texas, where they would be stockpiled or placed into weapons.

South Carolina’s congressional delegation and state officials, including Gov. Henry McMaster and the Legislature, must demand guarantees that SRS won’t end up with more plutonium than it already has and that pit production won’t result in a net gain of hard-to-dispose-of nuclear waste.

The Pentagon is bound to comply with a 2014 federal law that requires the production of 80 bomb cores or pits by 2030. And it is highly likely that most of the cores will be made or reprocessed at SRS. The 30 or so others would be made at the national laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. An extended public comment period on the draft environmental impact report ends Tuesday. Written comments can be emailed to NEPA-SRS@srs.gov, or mailed to Jennifer Nelson, NEPA Document Manager, National Nuclear Security Administration, P.O. Box A, Aiken S.C. 29802.

Pits are the fissionable plutonium in nuclear weapons. The heavier-than-lead man-made metal provides a mighty explosion itself, but in most modern weapons, the pits set off a larger thermonuclear fusion reaction. They’re hollow spheres, made in halves, most slightly larger than a grapefruit but smaller than a bowling ball. Producing 50 a year by 2030, as mandated by law, would mean billions of defense dollars for the state.

But so far, there’s no plant at SRS for making pits and no guarantee that pit production wouldn’t strand more waste here. It certainly would not help fulfill the federal government’s promise to remove radioactive material from the site.

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South Carolina residents want to see SRS cleaned up.

The state must guard against SRS becoming a storehouse for finished pits. The National Nuclear Security Administration has said that any old pits brought to SRS for reprocessing would be moved out of the state when finished. If this plan moves forward, South Carolinians must demand an ironclad guarantee on that.

Separately, it’s encouraging that SRS is grinding up surplus plutonium, diluting it and disposing of it, or at least trying to dispose of it. Permanent disposal is the major problem. South Carolina continues to press its case for $200 million in fines because the federal government has failed to meet removal goals in recent years.

The demand for new pits is partly driven by a long-recognized need to keep our nuclear weapons reliable and ready to deploy within minutes. With Russia and China continuing to develop new atomic weapons — Russia boasts a hypersonic nuclear-powered warhead — part of the push is about maintaining nuclear dominance in the 21st century.

Certainly, SRS is an important part of our country’s network of national laboratories. It supports about 11,000 jobs. And South Carolinians have a long tradition of being willing to do their part for the country’s national defense. But we don’t want to be left with an unmanageable amount of nuclear waste for a virtual eternity.

The plan for pit production at SRS has been quietly advancing since 2018 and gaining momentum. South Carolinians should be willing to take on the work, but our elected officials must get guarantees that the federal government will hold up its end of the deal and continue to move nuclear waste and surplus radioactive materials out of the state.

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