Feds face suit over plan to build atomic weapons component factory in SC


(also archived on the Facebook page of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project: https://www.facebook.com/scelp.org)


The government never finished this mixed oxide fuel plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. This site would be converted to a pit plutonium factory, according to plans. COURTESY HIGH FLYER

Four public interest groups said Tuesday they are suing the federal government, seeking to stop construction of multi-billion dollar nuclear production factories in South Carolina and New Mexico that would make components for new atomic weapons.

Savannah River Site Watch, Nuclear Watch New Mexico, Tri Valley CARES and the Gullah Geechee Sea Island Coalition are seeking an extensive study, known as a programmatic environmental impact statement, to weigh the effects of new pit plants on the environment and people who live near them.

Federal officials have sought the new plants to update the nuclear arsenal, a prospect that project boosters say could provide 1,000 jobs at the Savannah River Site, the Aiken area weapons complex where a pit factory would be located.

But critics say the promise of jobs isn’t worth the risk of environmental contamination or the cost, now estimated to be about $15 billion for the two plants. 

A new type of weapon also is not needed, even though it is the main reason for expanding pit production, critics say.

Legal action follows a threat in April by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, a non-profit legal service, that the groups would take the government to court if the U.S. Department of Energy did not fully study the effects of building plutonium pit factories in the two states.

The groups’ claim targets the DOE and a defense division of the agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. They want a federal court to prevent the government from proceeding with the plutonium pit plants until the agencies “have complied’’ with federal law.

While new pit production facilities have been considered for at least 20 years, the groups say past analyses no longer provide an accurate assessment of environmental impacts from the latest proposals in South Carolina and New Mexico. They say failing to conduct a more thorough study violates federal environmental aw.

“Evidence is overwhelming that any of the (past) analyses that have been done are outdated and have not taken into consideration any of the significantly different circumstances that have arisen,’’ environmental lawyer Leslie Lenhardt said in a statement that preceded a news conference with reporters. “It is imperative that NNSA correct glaring environmental-review deficiencies and conduct a thorough programmatic EIS on the impacts of pit production across the DOE complex.”

A lawsuit could slow or even stop construction if a court agrees that a fuller environmental study is warranted. A programmatic environmental impact statement can take months, if not years, to develop, and depending on the findings, could make building the factories more difficult.

In the past, the public interest groups have said such construction is wasteful and will add to a buildup of nuclear weapons that is not necessary.

“DOE’s rushed planning to unnecessarily expand nuclear bomb production has already resulted in a massive cost increase and significant delays in the SRS plutonium bomb plant,’’ SRS Watch’s Tom Clements said in a statement. “While more delays and cost increases appear likely, it is essential that DOE slow down and comply with requisite environmental laws before jumping into ill-conceived plans to expand plutonium pit production which would be a key part of a dangerous new nuclear arms race.”

Former President Donald Trump revived plans by the Bush Administration to develop the multi-billion dollar pit factories. The Biden Administration is moving ahead with the plan, but also could drop or scale back that proposal after conducting a review.

The Biden administration announced Monday that it had issued the first of several major approvals needed for the project in South Carolina, but critics say the project has other major milestones that must be cleared. It could be the mid 2030s before production would begin.

Plutonium pits are bowling ball-sized spheres that are the cores of nuclear weapons. The government has produced fewer than 20 pits annually at Los Alamos, meaning the latest plan would sharply increase production.

New pit factories are a major concern to environmentalists because they will involve the use of plutonium, a highly toxic and effective nuclear weapon ingredient that they fear could hurt the landscape and expose people who live nearby to danger.

Harmful waste from pit production is a concern because there are limited places to send it.

The groups say communities of color, including African American and American Indian communities, are at risk. Some sea islanders say they are particularly concerned because waterways, including the Savannah River, flow toward the coast. The sea islands stretch from North Carolina to northern Florida.

“Anything that happens at the Savannah River plant will end up impacting those that are down the watershed,’’ the Gullah group’s founder, Queen Quet, said during a news conference Tuesday. “It will reach us in the Gullah-Geechee nation. It will reach us on the coast, and not just by water, but by air.’’

A pit plant also would bring in tons of plutonium to SRS, a site that for years already housed so much of the toxic material that it sparked legal battles between state and federal officials. After state officials sued to get rid of the material, the federal government agreed to ship the plutonium away. Now, more plutonium could come to SRS.

In addition to those concerns are costs.

The new South Carolina plant would produce 50 of the 80 pits per year at the site of a failed nuclear fuel factory. That project, known as mixed oxide fuel, cost the public at least $5 billion before the government shutdown construction about three years ago. The MOX plant would be retrofitted for pit production. The other 30 pits would be made at Los Alamos.

The South Carolina pit factory alone was initially expected to cost $4.6 billion, but a National Nuclear Security Administration news release said Monday that the cost could reach $11.1 billion. The proposed plant at Los Alamos would add up to $3.9 billion, according to an April 28 news release from the NNSA.

The government has said it needs a fresh supply of plutonium pits for existing weapons, but also for a new class of weapon, known as the W-87-1. That weapon is supposed to be more efficient and safer to handle. Plutonium pits in the U.S. arsenal were mostly fabricated in the 1970s and 1980s.

Federal officials were not immediately available for comment, but told The State newspaper last year that both plants are needed for security reasons to safeguard the nation.

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