SAVANNAH RIVER SITE, South Carolina - A half-finished monolith of raw concrete and rebar rises suddenly from slash pine forests as the public tour bus crests a hill at this heavily-secured site south of rural Aiken.
Dozens of hard-hatted workers in bright green and orange vests slog through the damp clay and clamber over a half-finished roof five floors up. Others filter in and out of openings cut into the windowless, half-a-million square-foot box, where towering construction cranes are clustered.
Guide Laurie Posey uses the bus loudspeaker to describe the project's 6,800 miles of cable, 80 miles of radiation-resistant piping and double walls of reinforced concrete. Recently, she said the government factory would cost $4.86 billion, then coughed into her fist and shot a glance at the bus' driver.
"Do you think they picked up on that?" she asked, shaking her head. The estimate she cited --$4.86 billion -- is a fiction the government used well after its lead contractor said the real number was likely to be $3 billion higher.
Dark clouds hover over this ambitious federal project, 17 years in the making and at least six more from completion--if, indeed, it is ever completed. It lies at the center of one of the United States' most troubled, technically complex, costly, and controversial efforts to secure nuclear explosive materials left stranded by the end of the Cold War.
This plant - and another just like it in Russia -- is meant to transform one of these materials, plutonium, into commercial reactor fuel that can be burned to provide electricity for homes, schools and factories, essentially turning nuclear "swords into ploughshares." The aim of the so-called Mixed Oxide, or MOX, plant is to ensure the material never winds up in the hands of terrorists.
In the right hands, only nine pounds of plutonium -- an amount about the size of a baseball -- could make a bomb as powerful as the one the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The world's military and civilian nuclear programs have produced about 500 metric tons of pure plutonium, an amount that could fuel tens of thousands of nuclear weapons yet fit into a backyard shed. Countries with nuclear programs continue to add roughly two tons to this inventory every year.