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SC Senators Debate How to Spend $525M In Plutonium Deal

Plutonium Money
Stephen B. Morton/AP
FR56856 AP
FILE - In this Nov., 20, 2013, file photo, radioactive waste, sealed in large stainless steel canisters, are stored under a five-feet of concrete in a storage building at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C. South Carolina lawmakers are debating how to spend $525 million from a federal settlement after U.S. officials didn’t remove all the plutonium from the state by a 2017 deadline. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

Along with billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money, South Carolina lawmakers have another large bonus pot of money to spend soon — $525 million from the federal government over plutonium still sitting inside the state.

The money is part of a 2020 settlement with the federal government which promised a plant at the Savannah River Site near Aiken that would turn plutonium from unneeded nuclear weapons into nuclear reactor fuel but instead left about 21,000 pounds (9,500 kilograms) of the highly radioactive material in storage in South Carolina.

A state Senate subcommittee looking into how to spend COVID-19 relief money also has been given the task of spending the plutonium settlement.

The two senators who represent the 310-square-mile (803-square-kilometer) federal site, where thousands were forced out of their homes in the early 1950s because the U.S. needed a place to build nuclear weapons during the Cold War, said the counties that lost land should get most of the money.

"We're not asking for all the money, but we're asking we get out fair share based on the history of this site," Sen. Brad Hutto said at Tuesday's meeting.

The Democrat from Orangeburg said he thinks $425 million should go to counties affected, while $100 million should go for statewide projects. Hutto broke the county share down by saying Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties deserve the biggest share because that's where the site is.

The ring of counties around those areas also deserve extra money because they lost jobs when the federal government ended the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX program, that was supposed to create nuclear fuel before the facility was finished, said Sen. Tom Young, a Republican from Aiken.

"The MOX project promised hundreds and hundred of jobs," Young said.

"Good paying jobs," replied Sen. Nikki Setzler, a Democrat from West Columbia.

Young and Hutto said it would ultimately be up to senators — and the South Carolina House — to decide exactly how to spend the money.

They have a list of possible projects from new high schools in rural areas to industrial park renovations and expansions to new programs at Aiken Technical College to expanding computer, internet and other access in North Augusta to partner with the Georgia Cyber Center across the Savannah River in Augusta, Georgia.

Senators took no votes Tuesday as Hutto and Young promised to give them a full list of suggested items.

Hutto said the counties closest to the site deserve the most money because they embraced their role of helping the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but also suffered. He said a number of businesses, especially food service, skipped over the area because of the proximity of the dangerous radioactive material.

"I don't know of a soul last year who decided not to go to Myrtle Beach because there is plutonium in Barnwell," Hutto said.

South Carolina has long fought with the federal government over the plutonium with officials in the state worried that the radioactive material was sent before the MOX plant was running.

The feds promised in 2002 to get rid of all the plutonium by 2017 and the settlement was brokered after the promise was broken. The 2020 settlement also requires the U.S. to get all the plutonium out by the end of 2036 or face more penalties that could total more than $1 billion.

That possibility of more money almost two decades from now is another reason to be careful how this $525 million is spent, Young said.

"It will not be binding, but it will in some respects be instructive," Young said.

The Savannah River Site once had nearly 26,000 workers in the early 1990s as it shifted from making nuclear weapons to finding ways to clean and store the radioactive byproducts of weapons and nuclear plants. Now, about 11,000 people work at the site.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.