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Planned expansion of Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility needs environmental commitment

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Planned expansion of Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility needs environmental commitment

Apr 02, 2024 | 6:10 pm ET
By Emma Sandifer
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Planned expansion of Savannah River Site nuclear weapons facility needs environmental commitment
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Earlier this month, the Biden administration released its annual budget request to Congress, including a cost increase related to the expanded plutonium bomb facility at the Savannah River Site (Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy)

A nuclear weapons facility along the Georgia-South Carolina border is about to get a lot busier — but before billions of our tax dollars get spent, we need to ask some hard questions about its purpose and if adequate steps will be taken to prevent contamination of our water and natural resources for decades to come.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration released its annual budget request to Congress. Even as analysts continue to wade through the nearly 200-page document, the most shocking number is the cost increase related to the expanded plutonium bomb facility at the Savannah River Site (SRS), which more than doubled from an estimated $11 billion in 2021 to $25 billion.

This raises the question: why are we spending so much money on projects that may harm our region for generations without being proven to make us any safer?

This region’s coastal plains have been and remain critical to our nation’s nuclear identity. The Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base down by Cumberland Island, the Atlantic hub of the U.S. ballistic missile nuclear submarine fleet, is one reminder of the potential costs of nuclear conflict.

Of more immediate concern, however, is the SRS, just outside of Augusta, which is the biggest and most important outpost of the U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise in the Southeast. Plans for the upcoming production of plutonium pits — the radioactive core inside nuclear bombs — at this site mean that nuclear weapons could leave a more significant and permanent footprint in our region than ever before, threatening communities across the Southeast and costing the nation billions of dollars per year.

Plans for the SRS began in 1950, prompted by the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  Nicknamed “the H Bomb Factory” by locals, this facility would produce the essential elements for nuclear weapons. Between the early 1950s and late 1980s, huge amounts of nuclear components were produced at the SRS before significant scale-downs after the end of the Cold War. In 2018, the federal agency in charge of the SRS, the National Nuclear Security Administration, implemented a plan to begin plutonium pit production at the SRS along with the existing facility in New Mexico. These pits have not been produced in any significant number since the end of the Cold War, and the scientific community remains divided about whether new production is even necessary for the United States to maintain a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent.

But there is no question that engaging in plutonium pit production could come with non-monetary costs to the community — costs the United States has an unfortunate history of ignoring. The most obvious cautionary tale occurred across the country at the Hanford Site in Washington state. Hanford was home to the first plutonium processing reactor in the world, built in 1942 to support the Manhattan Project and eventually closing in 1971. Devastatingly inadequate waste disposal procedures and safety measures led to large amounts of radioactive material being released into the air, ground and surrounding water sources. Elevated levels of contamination remain present in the surrounding groundwater, as do tragic health consequences in the community.

Intense cleanup at Hanford, demanding significant taxpayer expenditures, continues more than 50 years later. The Department of Energy reported in 2023 that clean-up of the site could “cost about $341 billion and likely won’t be complete until 2084.” That’s 113 years of clean-up after shutting down.

It’s fitting that Hanford occupies a spot on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priorities List of contaminated sites. Unfortunately, since 1989, the SRS has been on that same list, and there are already warnings of severe water contamination and inadequate clean up procedures.

Hanford doesn’t have to be the model. Georgians and all those in the Southeast should start asking critical questions: Are we as taxpayers willing to commit to a costly and potentially decades-long clean-up process on top of the already extreme costs of building the SRS in the first place? What measures will be taken to prevent a toxic and radiological nightmare in our backyard?

Although SRS has not yet seen a disaster, the health of millions of residents in and around the facility is too important to take lightly. We must learn from Hanford and demand federal, state and local officials ensure effective safety measures and cleanup procedures. We should hold them accountable for protecting our environment and communities from the familiar horrors of nuclear waste mismanagement.

If plutonium pit production must be undertaken, the SRS should become a shining example of how to do it right.

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