Scuttlebiz: Will ‘pit production’ save SRS?

“Don’t be lulled into a false sense of urgency by the federal law “requiring” pit production begin by 2030. That law carries as much weight as the 1982 federal act requiring the nation to have a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain 12 years ago. Still waiting…”


It’s a choice that – from a local economic development perspective – isn’t much of a choice.

Here it is: 1) Convert the Savannah River Site’s unfinished Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility into a nuclear weapons plant; or 2) Let the MOX plant keep rotting while New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory continues producing the nation’s stockpile of “plutonium pits.”

Considering that about $9 billion is at stake, and that SRS needs a new “mission,” I believe it’s safe to assume local leaders want what’s behind Door No. 1.

The National Nuclear Security Administration laid out the two alternatives last month in a draft environmental impact study addressing the nation’s need to manufacture 80 new nuclear weapon cores a year by 2030.

Under the first alternative, a minimum of 50 plutonium pits a year would be made at SRS, with the remainder coming from Los Alamos – the nation’s sole pit production facility.

The pits, in case you were wondering, are for the warheads atop the “Ground Based Strategic Deterrent” intercontinental ballistic missiles that are designed to phase out some of the Air Force’s 400 Minuteman III rockets.

These silo-based missiles, along with the nuclear weapons we carry in our fleet of submarines and strategic bombers, are what enables us to sleep soundly at night.

The whole South Carolina-New Mexico production plan was hatched in 2018 as a way to have redundancy, the theory being a nation shouldn’t keep all its pits in one basket.

The NNSA’s study says the former MOX facility could start up as early as 2026 – an impressive timeline for a Department of Energy agency. The public comment period on the study ends June 2.

The agency and its SRS contractors are planning as if the pit-production facility is a done deal, touting the re-purposing strategy in elaborate public presentations.

If built, the forecasts say the SRS pit-production facility would create more than 2,000 long-term jobs. Under the “no action” alternative, the installation’s employees would presumably keep doing what they’ve done for the past three decades – clean up cold war-era waste and produce tritium (another ingredient in our nuclear arsenal).

So, all in all, this is a pretty big deal for the region.

SRS covers 310 square miles – just a tad smaller than Richmond County.

SRS’ annual economic impact is about $2.3 billion – the same size as Augusta University.

SRS employs 11,000 people – more than the Richmond, Columbia and Aiken county school systems combined.

Aside from the relocation of Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon later this year and the ongoing construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, the prospect of a national defense facility would be the biggest influx of cash into the Augusta-Aiken metro area economy in recent years.

So why does it seem as though enthusiasm for the project is muted?

Obviously, the general disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a distraction. And it certainly doesn’t help that the pit-production facility is viewed by some as a “consolation prize” for the NNSA scrapping the politically-unpopular – but 70% complete – MOX project in 2018 (a project that, by the way, was designed to turn surplus American and Russian nukes into power plant fuel).

If the rank-and-file business community is excited over pit production, I haven’t seen it. Most of the interest appears limited to elected officials looking to feather their caps, federal employees and contractors planning their “retirement score,” and rabid anti-nuclear activists clinging for a reason to remain relevant.

South Carolina’s U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who is not a rabid anti-nuclear activist, said in a statement after the NNSA’s May 1 open hearing that SRS “meets the needs for this critical mission, from workforce readiness and manufacturing, to a strong record for safety and waste remediation.”

“With broad support from the local community,” he said, the plutonium pit production facility “will create meaningful jobs for the region and support curriculum in regional schools to create a workforce pipelines for both this project and other missions at the site.”

The project’s opponents will obviously not describe the project as “meaningful.” MOX haters called it a boondoggle. And you can be assured that pit production, too, will be called a boondoggle if construction is approved.

I’ll concede their concern is partly legitimate; every major Energy Department project comes with that sinking feeling it will cost a lot of money and never see completion. The list of DOE mega-project failures is long. Don’t take my word for it, look it up.

And don’t be lulled into a false sense of urgency by the federal law “requiring” pit production begin by 2030. That law carries as much weight as the 1982 federal act requiring the nation to have a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain 12 years ago. Still waiting…

Pit production at SRS may be a priority for the current administration. But who’s to say it will be a priority for the next?

I suppose you can put me in the “cautiously optimistic” box.

AN OIL CHANGE WITH SPARKLE: Hey, it’s no 600,000-square-foot plutonium facility, but the Jiffy Lube planned to locate outside the Augusta South Square shopping center looks to be pretty a impressive operation.

According to the construction specs, the quick-lube store at 3597 Peach Orchard Road – the northwest corner of Peach Orchard and Tobacco Roads – will feature nearly 6,000-square-feet of space (about 1,000 square feet larger than the typical Jiffy Lube).

As a bonus, the 2-acre site will have a Sonny’s One Wash “Sparkle Peach” car wash. That will be a nice perk for the folks working in the Family Y-anchored shopping center, which also houses Doctors Hospital’s occupational medicine office as well as SRP Federal Credit Union.

WHEN DO WE HIT BOTTOM: The national unemployment rate has been staggering. As it is in Georgia, which has lost 963,000 lost jobs through the four weeks ending April 11.

What is the jobless ceiling for metro Augusta? Well, MoneyGeek has predicted peak pandemic unemployment in the area to be 27% – roughly 72,400 unemployed workers.

According the latest figures from the Georgia Department of Labor, metro Augusta lost 11,300 jobs in March, for an unemployment rate of 4.2%.

Nothing against you, MoneyGeek, but I hope you’re wrong.

LOOKING FOR A CODE: Have you ever heard of Mark Branum’s appliance recycling business, America’s Remanufacturing Co.? Perhaps you’ve bought a vaccum at the factory store?

Well, I got to take a tour of his operation in 2016, and let me tell you – it was a pretty impressive.

As Branum told me in his Walmart-sized warehouse full of refurbished appliances: “I’m the largest small appliance remanufacturer in the world.”

Branum’s operation is so large and unique, apparently, that it believes it needs its own industry classification number.

America’s Remanufacturing Co.’s chief revenue officer Paul Adamson earlier this month issued a public comment on the Census Bureau’s North American Industry Classification System updates seeking to “add remanufacturing-specific codes” to the NAICS structure.

The company told the Bureau “the size of the remanufacturing industry is currently difficult to measure because there are no official statistics for it. The collection of statistics for the remanufacturing industry is important for a number of reasons.”

Basically, the company wants a code so it can focus its targeted marketing efforts on companies in similar or identical industries as well as get better data on the industry and its customers.

When you’re in business, those are things you want to know.

The company was founded in 2002 and it employs about 100. In its letter said it is looking to expand to the West Coast later this year.


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