By Corey Hutchins
How the U.S. quietly turned a civilian atomic power site into a so-called bomb facility — and what it means for the global arms race
An innocuous industrial site belonging to Westinghouse Electric Co. sits off a rural stretch of South Carolina Highway 48, surrounded by a thick forest about 10 miles outside the state’s capital of Columbia.
For years, locals believed employees here worked solely on uranium fuel used in civilian nuclear power generation. But somewhere inside the 2-million-square foot complex, a small team of specialists, working on a federal contract for more than a decade, have quietly been assembling special stainless steel rods that are essential in the production of tritium, a radioactive isotope used in the trigger mechanisms for nuclear bombs and missiles. It’s the amount of tritium that’s released in the explosion of a nuclear weapon that determines the intensity of its devastating blast.
The activities at the Columbia plant, illuminated here in depth after years of obscurity, offer a rare peek into the widespread and largely unknown civilian participation in America’s nuclear weapons complex — a scattered and privatized industry that defies efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and arguably undermines official U.S. policy and the key treaty aimed at preventing a runaway global atomic arms race.
“Such assembly has resulted in the de facto conversion of the Westinghouse fuel plant into a nuclear bomb facility,” argues Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that closely tracks the nuclear industry.