Opinions of SRS plutonium pit production clash at North Augusta public forum

Open arms and general support for plutonium pit production at the Savannah River Site sharply contrasted with questions, criticism and pushback Thursday night at a government-led public forum in North Augusta.

A slew of officials – including Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon, Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker and Jim Marra of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness – stumped that night, offering their takes on why SRS is the correct fit for the enduring weapons-oriented mission.

Both the city and county have enshrined statements of support before.

Pit production encouragement Thursday also came from various chambers of commerce, USC Aiken, and state and federal lawmakers.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, both spoke and submitted a letter of support from the Aiken County Legislative Delegation: state Sens. Tom Young, R-Aiken; Shane Massey, R-Edgefield; and Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia; and state Reps. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken; Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken; Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta; and himself.

"In view of the above, we, the undersigned members of the Aiken County Legislative Delegation, support the expansion of the national plutonium pit production mission to the Savannah River Site, and we request that the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration approve this expansion," the letter reads.

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.

Pit production criticisms – as well as recommendations regarding environmental considerations – came from nuclear watchers and myriad other groups. Some people offered alternatives, while a handful of speakers recalled stories of poor health.

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," Clements said, emphasizing that the proposed SRS mission is already rushed.

Clements, alongside Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, hosted a pit production forum earlier this month at the Aiken Municipal Building.

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 pit production at SRS as hurried, and a woman representing The Human Family organization expressed concerns about earthquakes and becoming a target of terrorism.

"But it's important that all the people get their voices heard, and I feel like I am speaking not only for the people, but also for the environment, for the animals, for the insects," she said, later calling for a judicious environmental review.

Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores. At least 80 per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading nuclear policy document. Pit production opponents have repeatedly 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. More specifically, pit production at the site would be done at a recapitalized Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, according to the joint recommendation.

The NNSA terminated the MOX project – over-budget and congressionally controversial – on Oct. 10, 2018.

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 Thursday night to collate public comments on pit production and a related environmental assessment.

By Colin Demarest

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