The Bomb Plant

The P Reactor at the Savannah River Site
The P Reactor at the Savannah River Site

Thanks to funding from the Colombe Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and an anonymous donor, National Security News Service reporters spent the last two years investigating the most secretive institution in the federal government: the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and its radioactive weapons facility – the Savannah River Site (SRS).

We call our multi-media investigation The Bomb Plant. It tells how a secretive and little known government agency, dedicated to modernizing and safeguarding nuclear weapons, reaped billions of dollars in the name of nonproliferation. After DOE wasted billions of Stimulus Act dollars on environmental clean-up at the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, especially SRS, NNSA took control to hide the problems.

Begun in the Bush administration, NNSA eats up 85% of the Department of Energy (DOE) budget. It has bipartisan support in Congress. It became one of the most powerful agencies in the U.S. government by successfully compromising its opponents.

NNSA convinced the nonproliferation community that it had an effective way of disposing of nuclear weapons grade material. It assured some environmentalists that it could produce safe, “clean,” carbon-free electric power. As a result, opponents of nuclear weapons – the nuclear nonproliferation community – joined forces with supporters of increased nuclear weapons capabilities. Some environmentalists concerned about climate change joined with energy and power companies. Taxpayer money poured into NNSA’s nuclear complex while critics were sidelined or silenced. With the support of large peace and environmental institutions as well as the military-industrial contractors, nuclear power became in vogue again. They call it: the Nuclear Renaissance.

NNSA’s nonproliferation and energy solution is Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX). With little more than a theory, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations accepted an unproven idea and committed billions of taxpayer money to building an enormous plant to take surplus plutonium from weapons and civilian programs from around the world, grind it into a fine powder and turn it into a fuel array for civilian nuclear power reactors. Some experts say this process is more dangerous than stabilizing and burying the excess plutonium.

A MOX production facility being built.
A MOX production facility being built.

Working with its huge and politically-connected contractors, NNSA uses an old, tired Atoms-For-Peace argument: It will solve the country’s energy problems by taking excess warhead material and converting it to reactor fuel for “peaceful” purposes. Former Obama White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod coined the phrase – nuclear power is the “bridge to our energy future” – when his company worked for Exelon, a Chicago-based utility that is the largest nuclear operator in the United States. NNSA says its MOX fuel will provide an abundant, on-demand, carbon-free power supply. Some powerful environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council became convinced that a new generation of nuclear reactors could be a sensible alternative to coal-fired plants.

Forty years ago, the old Atomic Energy Commission had to convince a skeptical nation that the costs, dangers and waste from nuclear weapons processing benefited the country in some way. The AEC’s public relations machine came up with the phrase “nuclear power – too cheap to meter.” It wasn’t. To make nuclear power viable, Congress had to provide loan guarantees to build and operate the plants and to pass laws to insulate utility companies from huge liability exposure.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, millions of Americans banded together to oppose nuclear weapons. President Jimmy Carter, a trained nuclear engineer, a Navy submariner, warned of troubling, potential proliferation problems with America’s civilian nuclear policies. After the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, nuclear power fell from favor. Programs like breeder reactors and nuclear reprocessing were deliberately exported to France and Japan – along with tens of billions of dollars of U.S. tax supported technology.

Japan combined a secret military with a civilian energy program. The French became world leaders in nuclear technology. After the Soviet Union fell, the Clinton administration negotiated an arms treaty with Russia. They were to take their surplus weapons material and turn it into MOX fuel. That never happened. During the Cold War, the Russians had invested billions of dollars to make plutonium for their warheads. To them, plutonium was just too valuable. So they went, instead, with a breeder reactor program that would produce more plutonium and more nuclear waste and fissile materials.

The United States, using AREVA, a French government owned contractor, is building a MOX plant, at a cost of billions of dollars for U.S. taxpayers, that will produce an even deadlier form of AREVA-made plutonium-based fuel that was loaded into Fukushima Daiichi Reactor Number Three a year ago. It was among the Tokyo Power Electric Company reactors that melted down in March.

Former President George Bush’s head of the Department of Energy now runs AREVA’s American operations. His political appointees still run NNSA. President Obama, a staunch nuclear power supporter, spent billions of dollars to clean up high-level waste at SRS left behind after decades of hydrogen bomb making. But that multi-billion-dollar clean-up effort failed and, as the money went down the drain, NNSA swallowed up the entire DOE environmental program to hide its failures behind national security.


The Bomb Plant investigation shows how America’s most radioactive Superfund site is being touted by the Obama administration as the pathway to a green future. In a chilling series of reports, DCBureau reporters will reveal how DOE wasted billions of dollars trying to clean up Cold War legacy waste while investing nearly $100 billion in borrowed money to rebuild nuclear weapons that military experts say we do not need.

Our investigation will take you to K Reactor, where the world’s surplus plutonium is being stored in a minimally-secured building located on top of the most dangerous earthquake fault in the South. You will see why some security experts fear that a terrorist attack on this old building could dwarf previous man-made or environmental disasters. You will hear from an internationally-known security expert how vulnerable the bomb plant is to terrorist attack. You will see how close our reporters got without really trying.

The National Nuclear Security Administration has rent-a-cops guarding the most dangerous materials on earth. They use the same foreign-owned private security company that did not protect our airliners on 9.11. Tons of plutonium is protected, not by a military nuclear security force, but by G4S, a private security firm based in London that got its start transferring ATM cash.

You will see how SRS poisons its workers, practices racial discrimination and ravages the environment. Democratic and Republican representatives alike ignore the environmental concerns and tout the jobs and money, as their predecessors did for sixty years.

You will learn how SRS workers have been electrocuted and repeatedly exposed to radiation and how SRS operating methods violate DOE policies, despite claims by government contractors of great safety records. You will see how reactors are being buried in cement at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars that will only kick the environmental problems down the road as the water table absorbs generations of weapons manufacturing radiation.

You will see the poorly planned and executed cleanup effort at SRS that is doomed to failure. As the environmental management side tries to deal with decades of waste, NNSA continues to produce more high-level waste.

SRS was never intended, nor is it equipped to be a final nuclear waste repository, but through redefinition of legal terms and the closing of the Yucca Mountain repository site, it has become one. SRS, with all its nuclear ruins and more curies of radioactivity than any place in America, is now the storage site for the world’s most dangerous materials.

In nearly 65 years, the nuclear weapons establishment has not figured out how to stop producing radioactive waste or how to destroy it. This nuclear legacy cannot be remediated – just stored and isolated.

The Bomb Plant investigates the past and future of this tormented place. Its land and water have been so poisoned that the site will require stewardship for thousands of years. Tax-paid contractors are protected by politicians like Tea Party leader, Senator Jim DeMint, and Assistant Democratic leader, Congressman James Clyburn.

Built at the height of the Cold War out of fear and in the name of patriotism, SRS reactors churned out the plutonium and tritium for hydrogen bombs and the people of South Carolina took the high paying jobs and asked few questions. True believers look upon the poisoned land and the cancer deaths as a necessary sacrifice for our national defense. They are building a museum honoring their work.

The Bomb Plant tells the dark history of SRS and how this no man’s land, that covers an area that is bigger than Washington, D.C., including the Capital beltway, came to dominate the South Carolina and Georgia economy and politics.

In the 1940s, during the Manhattan Project, when the enormous problem of high-level nuclear waste became apparent, it was deemed a national secret and kept from the public for decades. White workers ordered African Americans to deal with this deadly mess, and disposal involved dumping plutonium straight into the soil.

You will meet the Lindsay family whose father was recruited from his job as a segregated school principal to commute several hours from Greenwood, South Carolina, for a chance to help his country and receive a reliable paycheck to raise his ten children. You will learn how Mr. Lindsay, like thousands of other African American workers, was given the most dangerous jobs and ordered to throw his dosimeter, that measured radiation exposure, in a bucket before going into high risk areas.

As months turned into years, Mr. Lindsay got sicker and sicker. He brought the radiation home on his clothing. His children were exposed playing with their dad or sitting on his lap. His wife was exposed washing the clothes. While the white employees had a nuclear laundry for their work clothes, the African Americans were not so fortunate.

The Lindsay family with Bobbie Paul of WAND Georgia
The Lindsay family with Bobbie Paul of WAND Georgia
Ironically, the Lindsays thought they were lucky because the SRS management encouraged African American employees to hunt and fish on the site and pick from the old orchards that remained from the five towns that were lost to the bomb plant when it took over the land. The radioactive fruit, vegetables and fish and game were shared with friends and relatives, spreading radiation throughout the African American community.

Finally, one awful day, Mr. Lindsay was driven home to die. The radiation he brought home would reach from his grave to take his wife and then child after child over the decades.

You will meet the first African American college graduates to work at the bomb plant and learn how they spent their careers not getting promotions and not even being told what was happening to their fellow African Americans at the site. You will learn about the soaring rates of cancer among African Americans who live downriver from SRS. At the height of production at SRS, black towns along the Savannah River were not notified when radiation was being released into the river.

And if you think Jim Crow is dead at SRS in 2011, you will meet a young woman who went to work at the NNSA’s new $5 billion MOX plant. Despite her educational background and great computer skills, she could not even get an interview when a better job opened up. Instead, the position was given to a far less qualified white male worker.

Her reward for filing a complaint about being passed over for that job opportunity? She was fired and escorted out of the building in front of all her co-workers by Wackenhut Security guards.

You will see the crumbling H Canyon, where the decades of chemical separation have left high-level nuclear waste in a series of leaking million-gallon tanks that present the most arduous Superfund challenge the EPA has ever encountered.

You will take a tour down the Savannah River to Cancer Alley, where the SRS shoreline and the South’s most notorious nuclear plants have spewed out enough tritium to poison the Savannah River all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

You will meet the handful of activists who have tried to open up the Savannah River Site to serious scrutiny despite the DOE’s sham Citizens Advisory Boards.

You will meet the engineer who gave up a lucrative career to become the first whistleblower to tell the truth about SRS.

You will meet a river keeper from Augusta, Georgia, who patrols the Savannah River as the only independent monitor of the river as the regulatory agencies of South Carolina and Georgia ignore what comes from SRS.

In the 1970s and 80s, Americans took to the streets protesting nuclear power and bombs. The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear tragedies and the more recent meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima Daiichi left Americans thinking that the debate over nuclear power was over. The cost and dangers were not worth it.

But today, largely out of public view, powerful energy and construction companies, government agencies and contractors, and politicians including President Obama are leading us to what they call the “nuclear renaissance,” and the Savannah River Site – the bomb plant – one of the most dangerous places on earth – is ground zero once again.