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Wednesday, November 4, 2009 - 1:14am

Officials to Tour Nuclear Site

High-ranking officials with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration are coming to the Savannah River Site on Wednesday.

Ines Triay, the DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management; Thomas Paul D'Agostino, administrator for the NNSA; and Daniel Poneman, a deputy DOE secretary, will tour parts of the site and review projects there that will utilize plutonium. The trio's visit is one of several to other nuclear sites in the U.S. and is not related to recent controversies at SRS, according to a DOE spokesman.

But the issues at SRS, which processes nuclear materials and is a major employer in Augusta and Aiken, South Carolina, are causing mounting concerns for people who are monitoring the situation and prompting one group to speak out on the matter. The controversies include an investigation by the U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General into the recruitment practices of employees for new jobs created by federal stimulus money. Officials are also investigating several recent accidents at the site, including an acid spill that injured seven workers there, and a crane accident that injured another worker's hand. The accidents all happened this year. None of the accidents involved exposure to radiation.

In addition to the accidents, an audit released by DOE in September found problems with a portion of the $1.6 billion stimulus funds designated for the site through its main contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. About $200 million of the stimulus money was subsequently allocated to another contractor at SRS that manages liquid waste. The DOE says those two money issues are unrelated.

The head of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, Chuck Munns, retired this summer, just over a year into his tenure there. Officials have said his retirement is unrelated to the stimulus problems, although his departure came amid the controversy. Several media reports have also indicated that a top DOE official at the site may have been targeted for his role in the investigation over employee recruitment, although officials have not confirmed the allegations.

Meanwhile, the Governor's Nuclear Advisory Council this week wrote a letter to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, noting its concern over the recent events.

"First, there has been an increase in procedural violations and serious safety incidents which are especially noteworthy for their type and unprecedented frequency," the letter said. "Second, the leadership at DOE and (Savannah River Nuclear Solutions) has been in flux for several months."

"We intend to address with SRS the rapid turnover in leadership and the series of safety incidents," the letter continued.

Savannah River Nuclear Solutions took over management and operations of the Savannah River Site in 2008. It replaced the Washington Savannah River Company, which had managed the site for 19 years.

The Savannah River Site is located in South Carolina, along the border with Georgia near Augusta. A plant under construction there will convert plutonium from weapons into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. It is one of the DOE's most expensive projects.