A failing, over-budget nuclear fuel factory would be scrapped at the Savannah River Site and a new atomic weapons production facility established in its place, according to a plan announced late Thursday afternoon by the federal government.
The National Nuclear Security Administration offered the proposal to begin producing up to 50 plutonium pits per year at the site of the flagging mixed oxide fuel project near Aiken. Another 30 pits would be produced at Los Alamos, N.M., according to the plan.
While the NNSA's plan has miles to go before it would become reality, developing a pit plant at SRS could potentially save jobs that were to be created by the now under-construction plutonium fuel plant, commonly called MOX.
The MOX plant was at one time supposed to produce 400 to 600 direct jobs and a total of about 1,300 jobs, including support services. But it is not finished after years of planning and has recently been on the federal chopping block.
Many business leaders and U.S. Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., had pushed the MOX plant as a way to bolster the Aiken area economy, while also complying with an international disarmament agreement with Russia.
Danny Black, president and chief executive of the Southern Carolina Alliance, said he's not surprised at the announcement that the MOX plant would be scrapped. He said he's hopeful a new pit facility could replace some of the MOX jobs, although he remained skeptical of the proposal.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we could still get a good operation to replace MOX one day,'' Black said. "But we've been through so many of these (proposals), it's hard to get excited about it.''
A pit plant would produce the cores for nuclear weapons. It would include the use of plutonium, a major ingredient in nuclear arms. Pits once were produced in Colorado, but that factory closed decades ago.
Thursday's announcement further moves the U.S. away from completing the MOX plant, which was part of a more than 15-year-old nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia.
The U.S. and Russia have a deal to each get rid of 34 metric tons of plutonium they no longer need. Plutonium, which is toxic enough to cause cancer, is a key ingredient in atomic weapons that officials fear could fall into the hands of terrorists if it is not processed through a MOX plant or alternative methods. The MOX facility would have blended surplus plutonium to make fuel for commercial power plants.
Tom Clements, who heads the anti-nuclear group Savannah River Site Watch, said the federal plan to begin producing pits is troubling, even though he's glad to see the MOX plant is closer to being shelved. Clements' group had said the MOX plant was too expensive and not needed, in part because no atomic power plant wanted the fuel.
Clements questioned Thursday whether the U.S. has plans to increase nuclear weapons production. The NNSA said Thursday it needs a greater capacity to produce pits for national security reasons.
"This potentially plays into the hands of a new arms race,'' Clements said, noting that a pit plant also would create a substantial, highly toxic waste stream that would have to be dealt with.
In an announcement after 5 p.m. Thursday, the NNSA said "plutonium pit production is a priority.''
It was unknown how much it would cost to retrofit the MOX plant for a pit production facility or how many jobs such a complex would produce. But there has been talk for some time about scrapping MOX, which would have gotten rid of surplus plutonium by turning it into fuel for atomic power plants.
The federal government has been moving away from completion of the MOX plant under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Before President Barack Obama left office, the Department of Energy conducted a tour for the media to show the multitude of problems that were driving up the project's cost.
At the time, the MOX plant was known to be $12 billion over budget and potentially decades away from completion, The State reported. Workers began building the plant in 2007.
The Albuquerque Journal reports that the NNSA is under a Congressional mandate to make 80 pits per year by 2030 as part of an effort to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons.
If the federal plan goes through, the U.S. would be producing more pits than it has in decades. The now closed Rocky Flats, Colo., nuclear site once produced thousands of pits. The government has not produced any new pits since 2011, when the Los Alamos, N.M. laboratory completed the last of 29, the Albuquerque Journal reports.