The future of SRS: Budget fight at the federal level
Editor's Note: This is the final installment of a three-part series of what officials and legislators are doing about the Savannah River Site budget crisis on a local, state and federal level.
In the first two articles of this three-part series, local and state legislators shared their thoughts and action plans to help the SRS budget crisis.
Many of them alluded to communicating with federal legislators on the issue.
Those federal legislators have also shared their plans for SRS.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he is focusing primarily on the effects of sequestration at SRS. Graham said sequestration cuts directly impact tank cleanup, the MOX fuel fabrication facility and future SRS missions.
He also said he believes other federal programs get their required funding, while the Department of Energy suffers.
“I've been trying to find ways to replace sequestration with a larger budget,” Graham said. “Most federal funding is spent on Medicare and Social Security. It crowds out money for other agencies like DOE (the Department of Energy).”
The senator referenced the SRS tank closure plan that will save DOE about $16 billion.
For Graham, those savings are imperative because they'll help DOE maintain its federal commitment and avoid fines from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for DOE missing SRS cleanup deadlines.
“It is imperative we keep the tank closure goal on track,” Graham said. “I'm also working feverishly to help the MOX program, but the budget pressure created by sequestration is putting a strain on the Site, and Congress is taking a toll on the DOE.”
Long term, Graham said his main goal is making sure the Site has a future beyond cleanup programs that date back to the Cold War. He mentioned potential future missions, such as the development of small modular reactors – or SMRs.
“SMRs are going to be the future of nuclear. I would like to do that research at SRS,” Graham said. “MOX is also a relevant mission, and I want to see it move in a new direction. So I think every day of ways to ensure that SRS has a future beyond the Cold War missions.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he has been in communication with DOE by submitting several letters to DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz.
For example, Scott recently submitted a letter on Nov. 20 regarding radioactive waste removal. Much like Graham, Scott said he feels that a lack of funding will cause DOE to miss deadlines at the Site.
“The remediation process has made important progress recently; unfortunately, the administration has again misplaced its priorities when it comes to taxpayer dollars and SRS,” Scott told the Standard. “I'm hopeful that the DOE will renew its commitment to waste remediation and avoid over $150 million in avoidable fines that will have to be paid to the state at the expense of taxpayers because the administration missed important environmental goals.”
Scott said he is continuing to work with the local delegation to send a message to the Obama administration. He said the administration's efforts to underfund SRS are detrimental to South Carolina's economy and environment.
In a September letter, Scott called for the completion of the MOX facility in order to uphold the country's agreement with Russia to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium. In addition, Scott believes constructing the facility will also satisfy South Carolina's residents, who have been spending tax dollars on MOX for years.
“Completing the MOX facility still represents the best use of taxpayer dollars when it comes to meeting our country's commitments to processing weapons-grade nuclear material,” Scott said. “The Obama administration should not back out of those commitments.”
Scott has collaborated with other legislators on these issues. His Nov. 20 letter was also signed by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., among others. His September letter was also signed by Wilson, Graham and several others.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson
Similar to Scott, Wilson has also advocated for the Site through letters to DOE. On Nov. 14, Wilson submitted a letter to all members of the Budget Conference Committee in Washington, D.C.
Wilson asked the committee to consider alternatives to the budget crisis that won't continue to cut funding from DOE and SRS.
“The Savannah River Site provides the country with defense environmental cleanup efforts, nuclear weapons activities and fulfills international nonproliferation agreements,” Wilson's letter states. “SRS has been forced to furlough and lay off thousands of workers over the last year. The Site has also seen dramatic scaling back of vital national security missions that will drive up the overall costs of these projects.”
Wilson's letter also stated that sequestration cuts are necessary; however, cuts to SRS is not the way to balance the budget.
“Making arbitrary cuts to essential defense and radioactive environmental cleanup missions is not the way to balance our budget,” Wilson stated in his letter. “This will only jeopardize our national security and, at the same time, drive up costs for the projects in the out years.”
In addition to the recent letter, Wilson said his advocacy for the Site was apparent during the government shutdown.
On Oct. 11, Wilson was one of several legislators that fought for the passing of the Nuclear Weapon Security and Non-Proliferation Act – a bill that funded the National Nuclear Security Administration throughout the remainder of the government shutdown. The bill included the MOX facility, which falls under the National Nuclear Security Administration.
Even with the success of the bill, Wilson said he is still focused on environmental management missions at the Site, as well.
Temporary funding at the Savannah River Site is only expected to last until Jan. 15. At that time, SRS will be vying for a full budget, another continuing resolution or will be facing even more budget problems that may result in more layoffs and furloughs.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard news team and joined the paper in June. He is originally from Vidalia, Ga., and graduated from Georgia Southern University with a journalism degree in May 2012.