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New Watchdog Group Sets Sights on South Carolina Plutonium Facility

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Workers collect samples in 2010 for an environmental remediation study at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Activists said casting a critical eye on the site's mixed-oxide fuel initiative would be a central aim for a new watchdog group formed on Wednesday. Workers collect samples in 2010 for an environmental remediation study at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. Activists said casting a critical eye on the site's mixed-oxide fuel initiative would be a central aim for a new watchdog group formed on Wednesday. (U.S. Energy Department photo)

A new watchdog group formed on Wednesday with plans to place tough scrutiny on a "problem-plagued" effort to turn bomb plutonium into electricity.

Activists said a key focus for their new organization would be lobbying for alternative methods of eliminating 34 tons of plutonium under an agreement with Russia. Their announcement came in the thick of a fight over an Obama administration bid to suspend work on the project, which is intended to convert the weapon material into mixed-oxide power plant fuel at South Carolina's Savannah River Site.

"Our job will be to highlight to SRS programs that warrant public attention and involvement," said Tom Clements, the new director of Savannah River Site Watch. He said the group would focus on gleaning "possible lessons to be learned" from the troubled mixed-oxide project, as well as backing proposals for other "plutonium disposition methods that reduce environmental risks to South Carolina and reduce costs to taxpayers."

"It is the Department of Energy’s nature to operate outside public scrutiny," he added in the group's first news release.

An undisclosed Energy study reportedly concluded that the so-called "MOX" Fuel Fabrication Facility likely would cost between $25 billion and $30 billion to complete. Planning and construction efforts have cost $4 billion to date.

Frances Close, president of Savannah River Site Watch, said the new organization would consider a variety of additional "environmental problems and proliferation threats" associated with the South Carolina complex.

"We will follow and participate in all decision-making processes related to SRS cleanup programs as well as [the] National Nuclear Security Administration's [other] projects" at the 310-square-mile facility, she said in Wednesday's statement.

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