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A Bad Bargain on Savannah River Nuke Site

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THE Department of Energy recently announced it will restart the old K Reactor at the Savannah River site. This reactor was built during the 1950s and shut down in 1988 because of safety problems. It will produce tritium for nuclear warheads at a time when arms reductions have removed any need for new tritium. The K Reactor suffers from embrittlement, the lack of a cooling tower, and a number of other safety defects, and it is a menace to the population around the Savannah River site.Why South Carolina and Aiken County, the home of the Savannah River site, will allow this reactor to be restarted is an excellent example of "Faustian economics." Faust sold his soul to the devil for knowledge and power. However, he found the costs of that bargain far outweighed the benefits. Aiken County has made the same discovery. It sold itself to the precursors of the Department of Energy (DOE) for the promise of federal spending and for the jobs this spending would create. It has also been forced t o accept the pollution and hazards of production that accompany the making of nuclear weapons. Aiken County's Faustian dilemma began with the construction of the Savannah River site - and the filling of as many as 27,000 jobs this site has provided over the last 30 years. The Savannah River nuclear weapon production complex was promoted as a "magnet for high technology industry" by DOE. Instead, it has become an important inhibitor of economic growth in the four South Carolina counties around the site. For example, only nine industries moved into or expanded in the four-county area from 1986 throu gh 1989 - a period during which about 640 companies moved into or expanded in the rest of South Carolina. The reason for this is obvious. The Savannah River site is a major polluter that environmentally conscious companies avoid. Tritium is now present across the nearby border in Georgia groundwater, and the mixture of hazardous, radioactive wastes stored on - and leaking from - the Savannah River site will be a major health and environmental concern for the next 100 years. The part of South Carolina that bears the burden of this pollution is well aware of this cost of their Faustian bargain. They also know how many jobs the Savannah River site provides, and they know that the lack of any new industry has made their economy completely dependent on the site. Westinghouse says it wants to restart the K Reactor to improve morale at the Savannah River site and to give workers practice in operating a reactor. Yet the more unsafe a reactor, the lower the power at which it can operate. The lower the power, the less tritium produced. In this case, it appears the K Reactor is so unsafe it can be operated only at 20 to 30 percent of capacity and that it will produce an amount of tritium that is both insignificant and unnecessary. Even in this reduced operating mode, there is no requirement for the tritium the K Reactor would produce. Tritium, a gas which enhances the power of nuclear warheads, is in plentiful supply. And even though it decays at 5.5 percent a year, United States reductions of nuclear warheads from 24,500 in 1988 to 10,500 in 1998 assure a sufficient supply of tritium until 1999. Further reductions to 3,000 warheads could assure tritium supplies until 2015. So why restart the K Reactor? Because, given the momentum of arms reductions, if the K Reactor is not restarted soon it may never be restarted. However, this is such a weak reason for restart that one would assume that Aiken County, which is directly threatened by the safety defects still present in the reactor, would oppose the restart. Yet Aiken County believes it has no other option to preserve its economy. This belief has been reinforced by statements of South Carolina state officials (who do not liv e around the plant), implying that the future of the Savannah River site could be threatened if tritium production is not resumed. If the K Reactor is restarted, the result will be one more twist in the downward spiral caused by this Faustian economic bargain. The increased risk of pollution will further inhibit economic diversification. Less diversification will increase economic dependency on the site and increase pressure to accept more risky projects. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Cleanup of nuclear production sites provides about twice the jobs per million dollars spent as production activities at the Savannah River site. And because DOE and its predecessors have been such poor stewards of the environment, there is enough cleanup work to last for years. However, a change from production of nuclear warheads to cleanup will require courage on the part of the residents of the region around the Savannah River site. Courage to break with the past and embark on a new economic future. Courage to demand that DOE clean up its messes. Courage to demand that state officials work for cleanup and not nuclear weapon production. And finally, courage to demand a safe environment for themselves and their children. Faustian bargains take no courage to make and no courage to keep, but no one breaks a bargain with the devil without accepting a little risk in the process.