An abandoned nuclear site in Snelling, SC, in rural southwestern South Carolina is being transformed into a 1,648-acre industrial park.

Snelling, 150 miles from Charlotte, is a Barnwell County town of about 500 people. Right next door is the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, a major player in national defense work and the only source for tritium, an important element for making nuclear weapons.

In the early 1970s, a consortium of companies chose Snelling as the site for the nation’s first plant to reprocess used nuclear fuel. The $360 million Barnwell Nuclear Fuels Plant was expected to provide much-needed jobs in the rural community. Although 300 people were employed in 1977 at the 200- acre site on the eve of its official start-up, the plant never operated.

That was the year president Jimmy Carter banned commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing to help curb the spread of plutonium, a byproduct of reprocessing and the explosive component in nuclear bombs.

To recoup their losses, the plant’s owners, Allied General Nuclear Services sued the U.S. government for $500 million in 1983. During a long and unsuccessful legal battle, the concrete behemoth sat idle.

For years, Barnwell County native and then chairman of the County Council, Danny Black, headed a group looking to find other uses for the four-story, 300,000-sf plant with its 90-foot-deep cooling pools. By 1995, Black felt defeated. Then the group came up with the idea of an industrial park.

That idea also received little support. The nearest interstate was over 50 miles away and the available work force wasn’t highly skilled. In addition, the site would have to be cleaned of radioactive contamination.

But Black persisted, assembled support from adjoining counties and formed the Tri-County Alliance. So far, the Alliance has spent $1.5 million sprucing up the park. Black expects to put in another $12 million, all to be recouped by selling lots and further developing the park. He is also talking to the state about better interstate access.

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