A Bad Bargain on Savannah River Nuke Site

Article excerpt

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 to 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 through 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. …