Tom Clements, SRS Pits, Forum

Savannah River Site Watch Director Tom Clements holds a large photo of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, a never-completed nuclear fuel plant at the Savannah River Site.

The environmental disaster at the nixed Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado should be a red flag to those in the CSRA, watchdogs cautioned Tuesday, as the nation's energy and defense departments consider establishing a new nuclear weapons mission at the sprawling Savannah River Site.

SRS Watch Director Tom Clements and representatives of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Colorado on Tuesday warned roughly two-dozen forum attendees of health and environmental repercussions that could come with a local plutonium pit production mission, as has been suggested.

The Rocky Flats Plant was the last place the federal government produced pits, nuclear weapon cores, en masse.

It was raided by the FBI decades ago following a clandestine investigation, was subsequently shuttered and then shoddily cleaned up, according to Pat Mellen, a Colorado-based attorney who spoke Tuesday.

"It was an absolute disaster," Clements said of the Rocky Flats facility, which is near Denver. "Plutonium fires, releases, worker exposure, downwind exposure."

"We have been where you're at right now, and we did it wrong," Mellen said, speaking after the SRS Watch director. "We did it wrong at Rocky Flats."

The Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Department of Energy, in May 2018 recommended producing pits at the Savannah River Site, about 30 minutes south of Aiken.

While many local officials and lawmakers have welcomed the enduring mission, others, like Clements, have expressed repeated concerns.

"I used to tell students, 'If you want to be protected from Rocky Flats, don't breathe,'" said LeRoy Moore, another speaker at the Tuesday night event. That comment received some laughs.

The proposed production hub at SRS, a never-completed and repurposed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, would be one prong in a two-pronged plan. Another 30 pits per year would be produced at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, according to the recommendation.

At least 80 pits per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a leading Pentagon nuclear policy document.

Clements on Tuesday questioned both the need for the new pits and the government's ability to successfully produce them, let alone at that volume.

"So we're coming at this from the angle that the pit plant is not needed," the director said. "We don't need the new nuclear weapon that the new pit would go into, and there's a lot of problems ahead if the project, as it stands, is pursued and the MOX plant is used as the new plutonium bomb plant."

Clements made similar comments at a June get-together in downtown Aiken.

The pit hub proposed for the Savannah River Site – far from a done deal – is formally known as the Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility.

The Tuesday night forum was hosted by SRS Watch.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin