Opponents of Nuclear Plant Question Government Commitment To Safety With AM-Nuclear Safety, Bjt

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) _ Supporters of a proposed $3 billion weapons reactor at the Savannah River Plant said Tuesday it is needed to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while opponents questioned the government's commitment to run it safely.

The environmental impact hearing was the first of four to be held by the U.S. Department of Energy at different cities in the next three weeks.

The three aging weapons reactors at the 300-square-mile government complex have been shut for safety reasons since April. The new reactor would produce tritium, a critical component of nuclear weapons, and plutonium if needed.

The complex has been under scrutiny since it was revealed earlier this year that a series of accidents at the site over the past 30 years went unreported to the public.

''We all wish that nuclear weapons were not necessary, but unfortunately even under the most optimistic arms control scenarios, we will require a substantial number of these weapons for self-defense for the forseeable future,'' said Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C.

He said citizens in the area support the project and want to make sure it is operated safely but ''have confidence that this has been done and will continue to be done.''

Frances Close Hart of the Columbia-based Energy Research Foundation said the DOE first must lift the veil of secrecy over the operation of its facilities and disclose the cost and justification for further production of weapons materials.

The impact statement ''should discuss the question of accountability in all areas of concern,'' she said. ''We all know that environmental practices at Energy Department facilities have been far from state of the art.''

Becky Hardee, also of the Energy Research Foundation, said the complex doesn't have an evacuation plan for nearby Columbia, and Edward Fenton, vice president of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, said, ''I am interested in health effects (on) South Carolinians and nuclear workers.''

The hearing was attended by about 100 federal, state and local officials, representatives of environmental and anti-nuclear groups, local businessmen and residents.

Tom Cornwell, of the DOE Office of New Production Reactors, said a draft of the environmental impact statement would be completed in about a year.

In August, the DOE announced plans to build two reactors worth $6.8 billion over 10 years to replace the Savannah River reactors, built more than 30 years ago. The other reactor would be at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.

The Savannah River reactor would bring millions of dollars in investment and as many as 4,000 jobs in construction alone.

Energy Secretary John Herrington said Tuesday that one reactor at Savannah River that was supposed to be restarted next month probably won't resume operation until next spring or summer because of persistent safety concerns.