A familiar four: What Graham, Wilson, Duncan and Clyburn bring to the SRS table | News
This month, dozens of established South Carolina politicians won reelection. Incumbents dominated in Aiken County, a Republican stronghold, as was the case earlier this year during the primary elections.
The latest crush of continuity included a quartet of Savannah River Site-savvy lawmakers: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Reps. Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan and James Clyburn, the sole Democrat among them.
Their collective reelection — each man won by double digits, points-wise — is seen as a boon locally. Their continued tenure in Washington, D.C., Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon said recently, is indispensable “for our community and the future of the Savannah River Site.”
The two are undoubtedly intertwined.
“The site is very complicated and it takes a couple years for somebody to really understand what’s going on out there — or even pretend to,” Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO J. David Jameson said. “So that’s what we gain by their reelection. They know the site, they know the community. And those two should marry together as they make decisions and help the site advance.”
Together, the four and their various staff sport years of experience juggling the Cold War icon and the consequential missions there, navigating the warren of related legislation and decision-making — the future of nuclear waste storage and Yucca Mountain, for example — and interfacing with the Department of Energy’s leadership.
“I think we’re better served, when it comes to Savannah River site,” said Osbon, who previously endorsed Graham, “by reelecting people who understand and believe in the site and what’s done there.”
Graham, Wilson, Duncan and Clyburn each bring distinct things to the table. Some dominate headlines. Some don’t.
Graham, once a staunch opponent of Donald Trump, is among the president’s closest allies and has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which, like its House counterpart, has its hands in the Department of Energy’s nuclear-weapons work. That includes plutonium pit production. The senior senator long went to bat for the now-axed Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which was the topic of an animated — “forceful,” as one attendee put it — White House summit in late 2018.
“We had a very lively discussion,” Gov. Henry McMaster said Friday, “and from that, some things have happened.”
Wilson — a nearly two-decade incumbent whose district, the 2nd, includes the Savannah River Site — has repeatedly been named to a panel that resolves disagreements in the National Defense Authorization Act, an essential spending-and-policy bundle that influences work at SRS. Wilson, too, is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. The seat affords the congressman a means to poke and prod some of the Energy Department’s ideas and executives and also means he can steer conversations.
“The cleanup is so critical, but new missions I will be supporting,” Wilson said in an October interview, “and that would even include some cybersecurity capabilities, too.”
The 3rd Congressional District’s Duncan, on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has been pinned as a potential nuclear waste and nuclear energy leader. Duncan is “the one I usually mention” when asked who to watch in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a retiring Illinois Republican and Yucca Mountain crusader, has said. Duncan has repeatedly pitched Yucca Mountain, what was to be a nuclear storehouse in remote Nevada, as the lawful solution to a nationwide nuclear-waste bottleneck.
“Both Sen. Graham and Congressman Wilson have certainly been shields and advocates for the site,” Osbon said, “but I wouldn’t sell short the contributions of Jeff Duncan.”
And Clyburn, the influential House majority whip, has had a hand in elevating the profiles of Palmetto State historically Black colleges and universities and fleshing out their nuclear industry networks, bettering the workforce pipeline. (Tom Foster, once Savannah River Remediation’s president and project manager, has suggested Clyburn’s passion for empowering HBCUs is evident.)
“An internship can be a game-changer that opens doors, builds experience and offers an excellent test-drive for both students and employers,” Clyburn said earlier this year of an education and workforce agreement. “This is an outstanding, comprehensive effort to prepare students for the many current and future career opportunities right here in South Carolina, at the Savannah River Site.”
Some see Clyburn as instrumental in keeping the site healthy — an across-the-aisle power broker that monitors the region and, often behind the scenes, people said, seeks for it steady support. The majority whip’s early backing of President-elect Joe Biden, and their chumminess, overall, could prove fruitful in the future.
“He has always been strong with finding funding for us,” Jameson said. “So it’s the same deal. His knowledge of the site. His ability to produce. And his staff’s knowledge.”
The Savannah River Site of old — constructed as the U.S. and the Soviet Union locked horns — was a dedicated production hub designed to churn out tritium and plutonium, key nuclear weapon ingredients. While plutonium production at SRS ceased years ago, the tritium mission bounds forward.
The contemporary Savannah River Site has feet in at least two worlds: nuclear cleanup and national defense. The former, overseen by the Energy Department’s Environmental Management office, is the sort of job one works oneself out of; eventually, cleanup, by no means a simple or cheap task, will finish. The latter, an immensely complex and expensive portfolio tethered to the National Nuclear Security Administration, is expected to grow.
“Today,” state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has said, “SRS’s future looks similar to the critical missions that gave it birth 70 years ago — national defense.”
The gradually shifting landscape at the 310-square-mile nuclear reserve puts a premium on familiarity, local officials said. Knowledge and knowhow translates to less time playing catchup and more time advocating, pursuing, dealmaking.
“It keeps us from starting from scratch and having to prepare briefing books and trying to go over things a step at a time,” the chamber president said. “We’ve done that before with newly elected officials.”