The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are considering moving portions of nuclear weapons creation and assembly to the Savannah River Site, and Aiken City Council members have announced their unanimous support.

During a regularly scheduled City Council meeting Jan. 8, the Council approved a resolution "supporting and encouraging" the DOE and NNSA to locate plutonium pit production at SRS.

"I think this is a positive resolution," Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said Monday night.

Plutonium pits are grapefruit-sized spheres that are placed in the core of a nuclear weapon. They are critical to the weapon's detonation – they are sometimes referred to as triggers. Pits can be shared between nuclear weapons.

The pits have been exclusively produced at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico – Osbon said "they" are "working very hard to keep it there." On Dec. 18, 2017, three members of the New Mexico delegation sent a letter to DOE Secretary Rick Perry to "express very serious concern," as the letter reads, about moving pit production.

No new pits have been produced at the Los Alamos National Laboratory since 2011. Prior to New Mexico production, the NNSA manufactured pits at the Rocky Flats Plant, which was raided by the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989. Rocky Flats Plant operators eventually pleaded guilty to violating environmental laws.

Two U.S. senators and one U.S. congressman — all three representing New Mexico — sent U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry a letter …

Osbon believes SRS pit production would give local economies a boost: He estimated roughly 800 long-term jobs would come with the relocation.

"We think this is a positive opportunity at our site," Osbon said Monday. "We've been serving the needs for national security for over six decades out there. I think we're uniquely qualified for it."

City Council member Andrea Neira Gregory said she is "150 percent in favor of the opportunity, the economic growth," but was concerned with possible public safety implications.

The DOE has considered SRS for pit production since at least June 2017, as was previously reported in the Aiken Standard.

The DOE and NNSA have debated repurposing the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility – a 70-percent-complete, cost-bloated, federally controversial SRS project that would transform defense plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors – into a pit production operation, according to federal documents published by the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament community.

In an initial move to increase annual pit production rates, the DOE and NNSA conducted a study – an analysis of alternatives, technically – that considered the creation of new and the upgrading of current pit facilities. The NNSA is working to produce up to 80 pits per year by 2030, part of a greater weapons modernization effort.

The assessment concluded "two preferred alternatives" exist: "Refurbishing and repurposing facilities at the Savannah River Site" and an "additional footprint to accommodate pit production requirements at Los Alamos National Laboratory." The Idaho National Laboratory also is under consideration.

The Aiken City Council's resolution states pit production at SRS would be complementary to the MOX facility – not a "replacement." It also states the SRS workforce is skilled enough to handle a pit production project.

Terry Michalske, director of the Savannah River National Laboratory and executive vice president of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, told City Council on Monday night he believes SRS employees are good enough for the job.

"We must be successful at this mission, there's no question about that," Michalske said. "And in order to do that, we need people who are highly trained and can operate these kinds of facilities in a safe and secure manner."

"The heart of it is that we have the nuclear-capable workforce," he continued, "and this is an important opportunity to serve the nation."

Retrofitting SRS facilities, the NNSA assessment reads, would cost between $1.4 billion and $5.4 billion. In his introduction, Osbon said the relocation would provide a "multi-billion dollar" investment.

The MOX facility was granted more than $300 million in federal funds to continue construction in fiscal year 2018.

The MOX switch-up would be scheduled for fiscal year 2024-2031, according to the NNSA document. The biggest risk, the document continues, is the actual refitting.

Aiken County Council Pit Production Resolution

A resolution to support pit production at the Savannah River Site is included in the Aiken County Council's meeting packet.

Upgrading production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory would cost between $1.9 billion and $7.5 billion, according to the document. The document states the Los Alamos option is "less favorable" considering cost and scheduling.

Aiken County Council also will decide whether to sponsor pit production at SRS: The same resolution is included in the County's Jan. 9 agenda packet.

Osbon said the respective councils have been working in tandem to "show support locally for future missions at the site." Once the Aiken County Council formalizes its support, Osbon added, a "package" will be sent to the federal level for consideration.

Colin Demarest is a reporter with Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since November 2017. He is a New Jersey native and received his B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of South Carolina. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin