COLUMN: DOE funding decision blow to SRS future

  • Posted: Friday, December 28, 2012 7:36 a.m.

The Department of Energy’s recent decision to pour millions into a new small modular reactor project in Tennessee is yet another blow to local efforts to save the Savannah River Site from what many fear may ultimately be permanent closure.

Encouraged by DOE and working with the private sector, the SouthernCarolina Alliance and other economic development groups mounted an aggressive campaign to locate SMR research and demonstration projects at SRS. However, DOE’s most recent decision to fund the SMR project in Tennessee instead indicates that this common sense approach to deploy this new technology and create jobs here in our region is not to be.

Instead, DOE has announced it will make a “significant investment” – estimated to be hundreds of millions – in Tennessee in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for SMRs. The funding is part of a five-year cost share agreement with Babcock & Wilcox in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel. The investment is geared toward helping B&W obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operation by 2022.

Small Modular Reactors hold great promise for the nation’s energy future. They are about one-third the size of current nuclear power plants, have compact, scalable designs and offer safety, construction and economic benefits.

They can also be made in factories and transported to sites where they would be ready to “plug and play” upon arrival, reducing both capital costs and construction times.

SMRs can also be a major economic boon to communities where they are built and operate, creating jobs, tax revenues and a heightened reputation for technological leadership.

Regrettably, the government’s decision to support SMR work in Tennessee brings into question DOE’s long-term plans for the Savannah River Site. New missions are critical to the future viability of SRS as the cleanup of the Site’s Cold War legacy winds down.

The announcement came days after the local DOE management was chastised by senior officials in the Department’s Environmental Management (EM) division – the current SRS “landlord” – for their ambitious plan, which called for devoting cleanup funds to grow Site missions, including SMRs. The plans were outlined in a comprehensive vision document called “Enterprise SRS” prepared by DOE and its primary operating contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

While we applaud the recent Memorandums of Agreement SRS signed with three SMR manufacturers, these agreements do not include a federal funding commitment. Rather, unlike its Tennessee investment, DOE says it envisions private sector funding will be used to support the SRS partnerships and any resulting deployment plans.

Based on these events, our region has every reason to be concerned about the future of the Savannah River Site. With its significant employment and sizable federal investment, SRS has been the chief driver of our regional economy for more than 60 years.

We know of no one who would not like to see the SRS record of achievement and economic benefits continue for decades into the future, taking the site to the century mark and beyond. Just as it would be difficult to assemble the SRS 310-square-mile land mass again, it will be just as challenging to recreate its unparalleled pool of human talent which has addressed some of the most complex and challenging technological issues of our time.

But without the federal government’s continued commitment and support for something besides “cleanup and close down”, many see the handwriting on the wall. Simply put, unless something changes soon, the future of SRS and the communities surrounding the site is not bright.

Twenty years ago, renowned physicist Dr. Edward Teller, the acknowledged Father of the H-bomb, told a local audience “it would a shame if thousands of talented SRS workers lost their jobs because the government failed to harness their unique capabilities for important new national missions.”

His comments were alarming then. Let’s hope they weren’t also prophetic. Whether it’s small modular reactors or some other technology, the Department of Energy needs to take a fresh, hard look at the impressive capabilities at SRS before it’s too late.

As stakeholders in the regional economies surrounding DOE’s Savannah River Site, we need to take action as well, bringing all of our political, business, financial and community assets together to petition for new missions at SRS.

Once the brick and mortar assets are dismantled and the collective, uniquely qualified workforce is dispersed, we will never again have the opportunity to produce the prosperity our region so desperately needs and deserves.

The loss of the SMR project to Tennessee should be a wake-up call to all of us. We must take steps now to transform our regional economy by fighting for these new missions, and our communities’ business leaders and elected officials should lead this charge.

Danny Black is president and CEO of SouthernCarolina Alliance, the regional economic development organization representing the six South Carolina counties of Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper.

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