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  • Writer's pictureLucian@going2paris.net

Savannah River Plant


Aiken

May 6, 2022


"This is your life." I grew up in Aiken because my father worked at the Savannah River Plant (changed to Site sometime in the 90s, I believe). The "Bomb Plant" made Aiken an unusual town in South Carolina -- there were a disproportionate number of men (I think they all were) with advanced technical degrees, especially PhDs. Combined with affluence of the existing horse training community, and it made Aiken quite different from many towns in the state.


The activities at the plant were wrapped in secrecy. It was the Cold War and the mission of SRP was central to our nuclear weapons program. There was no "anti-nuclear" movement -- to do so would have been unpatriotic.


I interned at SRP two summers when I was in college and also was offered a job there after graduation. The internships -- which I am sure I got in part because my father had been a senior person there -- were great experiences. After college, I needed to continue to spread my wings so I went to work in Richmond for Vepco. No regrets.


I pieced this description of SRP together from several different sources. Apologies in advance for any non sequiturs:


The Savannah River Site (SRS) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reservation in South Carolina, located on land in Aiken, Allendale, and Barnwell counties adjacent to the Savannah River, 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia. The site was built during the early 1950s primarily to produce nuclear materials for deployment in nuclear weapons. It covers 310 square miles and employs more than 10,000 people.

It is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The management and operating contract is held by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC (SRNS), a partnership between Fluor Corporation, Newport News Nuclear, Inc. (a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries) and Honeywell International, and the Integrated Mission Completion contract (including the former scope of the Liquid Waste Operations contract) is held by Savannah River Mission Completion, which is a team of companies led by BWX Technologies, AECOM, and Fluor. A major focus is cleanup activities related to work done in the past for American nuclear weapons buildup. Currently none of the five nuclear reactors on-site are operating, although two of the reactor buildings are being used to consolidate and store nuclear materials.


SRS is also home to the Savannah River National Laboratory and the United States' only operating radiochemical separations facility. Its tritium facilities are also the United States' only source of tritium, an essential component in nuclear weapons. The United States' only mixed oxide fuel (MOX) manufacturing plant was being constructed at SRS, but construction was terminated in February 2019. Construction was overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The MOX facility was intended to convert legacy weapons-grade plutonium into fuel suitable for commercial power reactors.

Future plans for the site cover a wide range of options, including host to research reactors, a reactor park for power generation, and other possible uses. DOE and its corporate partners are watched by a combination of local, regional and national regulatory agencies and citizen groups. History

In 1950, the federal government contracted with DuPont build and operate a nuclear facility near the Savannah River in South Carolina. The company had expertise in nuclear operations, having designed and built the plutonium production complex at the Hanford site for the Manhattan Project during World War II. A large portion of farmland, the towns of Ellenton and Dunbarton, and several other communities including Meyers Mill, Leigh, Robbins, and Hawthorne were bought under eminent domain, and the site of 310 square miles became the Savannah River Site, managed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Biologists from the University of Georgia, led by professor Eugene Odum, began ecological studies of local plants and animals in 1951 creating Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL), and plant construction began.

Production of heavy water for site reactors started in the Heavy Water Rework Facility in 1952, and the first production reactor, R Reactor, went critical in 1953. P, L, and K Reactors followed in 1954, and the first irradiated fuel was discharged. F Canyon, the world's first operational full-scale PUREX separation plant, began radioactive operations on 4 November. PUREX (Plutonium and Uranium EXtraction) extracted plutonium and uranium products from materials irradiated in the reactors.

In 1955, C Reactor went critical. The first plutonium shipment left the site. H Canyon, a chemical separation facility, began radioactive operations. Permanent tritium facilities became operational and the first shipment of tritium to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was made. In 1956, the construction of the basic plant was complete.

Nobel Prize


The neutrino was discovered by Fred Reines and Clyde Cowan using the flux from P Reactor, with confirmation published in the July 20, 1956 issue of Science. Reines was awarded the 1995 Physics Nobel Prize; Cowan had already died.

In 1961, the AEC established a permanent ecology laboratory on the site; two Army barracks were converted into laboratory space for the scientists. The next year, the University of Georgia hired a full-time staff with doctoral degrees to expand the research effort. Known initially as the Laboratory of Radiation Ecology, it was renamed in the mid-1960s the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, reflecting the broad spectrum of ecological studies carried out on the site.

In 1962, the Heavy Water Components Test Reactor (HWCTR) went into operation, testing the heavy water system for use with civilian power reactors. In 1963, Receiving Basin for Off-Site Fuels (RBOF) received its first shipment of off-site spent nuclear fuel. That same year, curium-244 was produced as a heat source for space exploration. This was the first full scale conversion of an SRP reactor load to non-weapons materials.

R-Reactor and HWCTR were shut down in 1964. In 1965, californium-252, the heaviest isotope produced at SRP, was separated as a byproduct of the curium program. Beginning in 1969, californium-252 was made in a separate production program.


The Mission

The primary mission of SRS throughout the Cold War was to produce tritium, a radioactive element used in nuclear weapons. This was done by placing fuel into one or more of the site’s five production reactors. Targets made of lithium were also placed inside the reactors. During the chain reaction, some of the neutrons coming off the U-235 were absorbed in the target rather than bumping into another atom of U-235. This created tritium inside the lithium target rod.


When the SRS reactors were not being used to make tritium, they were often used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons (Pu-239). This was done in a very similar way using depleted uranium targets instead of lithium ones. Depleted uranium is what’s left when most U-235 has been removed from natural uranium during the enrichment process. Sometimes other target materials were used to produce different radioisotopes. For example, neptunium-237 was used to produce Pu-238 for heat sources and special batteries for space exploration, as well as military and intelligence missions. The last SRS reactor operated in 1988.


Nuclear weapons are not made of irradiated targets. The tritium or plutonium first has to be separated from everything else in the target — the metal cladding and the other radioactive elements. The separation process for plutonium is called reprocessing. Reprocessing was also used at SRS to recover HEU from spent fuel to be made into new fuel. Some of this fuel came from SRS reactors, and spent fuel containing HEU was also sent to SRS from research and test reactors in the U.S. and other countries. Continued reprocessing is one of the options in the Draft EIS for managing SNF in the future.


Reprocessing is probably the dirtiest operation in the nuclear fuel cycle. (If there’s a dirtier step, it’s the initial mining and milling of uranium which has scarred the landscape of affected areas with millions of tons of dangerous dirt called tailings and large amounts of low-grade ore.) In South Carolina alone, reprocessing is responsible for creating the most radioactive waste in the country — over 30 million gallons of high-level liquid waste containing chemicals used in the separation process combined with a long list of radioactive elements created inside the reactors. Reprocessing has also generated tens of thousands of containers of solid radioactive waste which is buried just a few miles from the Savannah River. Already some of that waste has moved into soils and groundwater at SRS, while some liquid low-level radioactive waste from reprocessing began seeping into creeks at SRS years ago.


It will cost U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars to contain the waste from past reprocessing. There are no plans to ever completely clean it up. No one yet knows how to do so safely, even if there was money to try.


Palomares

Following the 1966 Palomares B-52 crash, the Savannah River Site received contaminated soil from the environmental clean up and remediation. Soil with radiation contamination levels above 1.2 MBq/m2 was placed in 250-litre (66 U.S. gallon) drums and shipped to the Savannah River Plant for burial. A total of 5.4 acres was decontaminated by this technique, producing 6,000 barrels. 42 acres of land with lower levels of contamination was mixed to a depth of 12 inch by harrowing and plowing. On rocky slopes with contamination above 120 kBq/m2, the soil was removed with hand tools and shipped to the United States in barrels.

In 1968, L Reactor was shut down for upgrades, and, in 1971, K Reactor became the first reactor to be controlled by computer.

The site was designated as a National Environmental Research Park in 1972. 1977 saw the startup of the Plutonium Fuel Fabrication (PUFF) Facility.

The Savannah River Archaeological Program (SRARP) was established onsite in 1978 to perform data analysis of prehistoric and historic sites on SRP land.

Remediation

In 1981, an environmental cleanup program began. M Area Settling Basin cleanup began under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The heavy water rework facility was closed in 1982. Construction of the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) began in 1983. Wackenhut Services Incorporated (WSI) began providing security support services at SRP.

In 1985, HB-Line began producing plutonium-238 for NASA's deep-space exploration program. The L-Reactor was restarted and C-Reactor shut down. A full-scale groundwater remediation system constructed in M-Area. Construction of Saltstone and of the Replacement Tritium Facility began in 1986. In 1987, DuPont notified DOE that it would not continue to operate and manage the site. The Effluent Treatment Project (ETP) construction began.

In 1988, K, L and P Reactors were shut down. An Effluent Treatment Facility began operations to treat low-level radioactive wastewater from the F and H Area Separations facilities. In 1989, the site was included on the National Priority List and became regulated by the EPA. Westinghouse Savannah River Company (WSRC) assumed management and operation of site facilities. The name of the facility changed from Savannah River Plant (SRP) to Savannah River Site (SRS).

In 1990, construction of a cooling tower for K Reactor began. Saltstone started operation. In 1991, the mixed waste management facility became the first site facility to be closed and certified under the provisions of RCRA. L Reactor and M Area settling basin were shut down. With the end of the Cold War, production of nuclear materials for weapons use ceased.

Post-Cold War

Roger Wensil, a pipe-fitter, worked for the B.F. Shaw Co., a subcontractor at Savannah River. In 1985, Wensil was dismissed as a whistleblower, after he complained of safety violations and illegal drug use among construction workers building a sensitive nuclear waste-handling facility at the plant. In 1992, the U.S. Congress enacted "nuclear weapons whistleblower protection".

In 1992, the cooling tower was connected to the K Reactor, and the reactor operated briefly for the last time. The Secretary of Energy announced the phase-out of all uranium processing. Non-radioactive operations began at the Replacement Tritium Facility and the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF). K Reactor was placed in cold standby condition in 1993. Non-radioactive test runs of the Defense Waste Processing Facility began.

Construction began on the Consolidated Incineration Facility. Tritium introduced into the Replacement Tritium Facility and radioactive operations began. The Workforce Transition and Community Assistance was started.

In 1994, the Savannah River Site Citizens Advisory Board was established. The Replacement Tritium Facility saw its startup. In 1996, DWPF introduced radioactive material into the vitrification process. K Reactor was shut down. F Canyon was restarted and began stabilizing nuclear materials. In 1997, the first high-level radioactive waste tanks were closed, numbers 17 and 20. The Cold War Historic Preservation Program was begun.

In 2000, the K-Reactor building was converted to the K Area Materials Storage Facility. The Savannah River Site was selected as the location of three new plutonium facilities for: a MOX fuel fabrication; pit disassembly and conversion; and plutonium immobilization. WSRC earned the DOE's top safety performance honor of Star Status.

Thousands of shipments of transuranic waste were contained and sent by truck and by rail to the DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) Project in New Mexico, with the first shipments beginning in 2001. DWPF completed production of four million pounds of environmentally acceptable classified waste.

In 2002, the F Canyon and FB Line facilities completed their last production run. The Savannah River Technology Center participated in a study of using a nuclear power reactor to produce hydrogen from water. Scientists reported finding a new species of radiation-resistant extremophiles inside one of the tanks. It was named Kineococcus radiotolerans.

In January 2003, Westinghouse Savannah River Co. completed transferring the last of F Canyon's radioactive material to H Tank Farm. DWPF began radioactive operations with its second melter, installed during a shutdown. The last depleted uranium metal was shipped from M Area for disposition at Envirocare of Utah. The last unit of spent nuclear fuel from RBOF was shipped across the site to L Reactor in preparation for RBOF's deactivation. Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF) construction began.

In 2004, the site shipped its 10,000th drum of transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a DOE facility in New Mexico, 12 years ahead of schedule. In a visit, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham designated the Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL), one of 12 DOE national laboratories. Two prototype bomb disposal robots developed by SRNL were deployed for military use in Iraq.

2005 saw the Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF) completed for the purpose of extracting tritium from materials irradiated in the Tennessee Valley Authority's commercial nuclear reactors. Savannah River Site's first shipment of neptunium oxide arrived at the Argonne West Laboratory in Idaho. This was the last of the USA's neptunium inventory, and the last of the materials to be stabilized to satisfy commitments for stabilizing nuclear materials. F Canyon was the first major nuclear facility at the site to be suspended and deactivated. Low-enriched uranium (LEU) from the site was used by a Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear power reactor to generate electricity. The tritium facilities modernization and consolidation project completed start-up and replaced the gas purification and processing that took place in 232-H. WSRC began multi-stage layoffs of permanent employees.

In 2006, design work took place for the Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF), a facility designed to process radioactive liquid waste stored in underground storage tanks at the site. The SWPF project work is performed by a group anchored by Parsons Corp. Work continued on design of the MOX fuel fabrication facility by a company now known as Shaw AREVA MOX Services. The SRNL was designated as the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management's "Corporate Laboratory." Aiken County's new Center for Hydrogen Research opened its doors. F-Area deactivation work was completed as was T-Area closure.

In 2007, the Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF) opened. On 1 August, construction officially began on the $4.86 billion MOX facility. Following startup testing, the facility expects a disposition rate of up to 3.5 tons of plutonium oxide each year.

In 2008, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC (SRNS) was awarded the contract for Maintenance and Operation of SRS. SRNS is a partnership between Fluor Corporation, Newport News Nuclear, Inc. (a subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries) and Honeywell International. Savannah River Remediation (SRR) was awarded the contract for the Liquid Waste Operations of SRS. Historical markers were placed in P and R Areas commemorating the role both reactors played towards winning the Cold War. Construction on the Waste Solidification Building (WSB) began.

In 2009, SRS began The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) project representing a $1.6 billion investment in SRS. This project, expected to run through fiscal year 2011, will result in the accelerated cleanup of nuclear waste at SRS and a significant reduction in the site footprint. In 2009 alone, more than 1,500 new workers were hired and over 800 jobs retained, due to ARRA funding. SRS construction employees reached 23 million hours (11 consecutive years) without a lost time injury case.

M Area closure was completed in 2010, with the P and R Areas following in 2011.

In 2021, DOE awarded the new Integrated Mission Completion Contract to Savannah River Mission Completion, an LLC comprising BWX Technologies, Amentum's AECOM, and Fluor. Transition from the Liquid Waste Operations contract to the Integrated Mission Completion Contract was completed in early 2022.

MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility

The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility was created to satisfy the nuclear non-proliferation agreement between the Russian Federation and the United States. The Russian Federation has met its obligations of the 2000 treaty, completed its processing facility and commenced processing of plutonium into MOX fuel with experimental quantities produced in 2014 for a cost of about $200 million, reaching industrial capacity in 2015. A report by the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated the total cost over a 20-year life cycle for the Savannah river site MOX plant to be $47 billion if the annual funding cap was increased to $500 million or $110 billion if it were increased to $375 million. Other studies have disputed this cost assessment as excessive. The estimated time-to-completion of the facility was also contingent upon annual appropriations, with an estimated construction completion date of FY2043 for the $500 million annual cap and FY2099 for the $375 million annual cap (where completion was indicated to not be possible for annual appropriations below this level).

The Obama and Trump administrations have proposed cancelling the project, but Congress continues to fund construction. The Aiken Chamber of Commerce of the state of South Carolina filed a lawsuit against the federal government claiming they have simply become a dumping ground for unprocessed weapons grade plutonium for the indefinite future and demanding previously agreed upon payment of contractual non-delivery fines. The federal government filed for dismissal and it was granted in February 2017.

The State of South Carolina similarly sued the federal government over the termination of the project, arguing that the Department of Energy had not prepared an environmental impact statement concerning the long-term storage of plutonium in the state and additionally that the government had failed to follow the statutory provisions concerning obtaining a waiver to cease construction on the facility. In January 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected South Carolina's suit for lack of standing; in October 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the state of South Carolina's petition of certiorari, thereby allowing the lower court's ruling to stand and the federal government to terminate construction.

In May 2018, Energy Secretary Rick Perry informed Congress he had effectively ended the about 70% complete project. Perry stated that the cost of a dilute and dispose approach to the plutonium will cost less than half of the remaining lifecycle cost of the MOX plant program. In February 2019, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a request to terminate the plant's construction authorization.

Litigation

After six years of litigation over plutonium moved to the site, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced August 31, 2020 that the federal government agreed to pay the state $600 million. Wilson described this as "the single largest settlement in South Carolina's history". The federal government also agreed to remove the remaining 9.5 metric tons of plutonium stored at the site by 2037. At a town hall meeting at USC-Aiken on August 20, 2021, S.C. Governor Henry McMaster led a discussion on how to spend $525 million of that amount.

Reactors

Savannah River is home to the following nuclear reactors:




P Reactor


In December 1953, R Reactor became Savannah River Site's first production reactor when it was "taken to critical" (meaning that full operation resulted in a sustained nuclear chain reaction). The R Reactor served as a prototype for the four other SRS reactors: P, L, K, and C. It produced plutonium-238, plutonium-239, and tritium - all ingredients of nuclear bombs.





The tall block shown here is the "actuator tower" which sits above the reactor core. The core itself sinks 40 feet below ground level; actuator parts (such as fuel rods) were lowered into the core once the reactor became operational or "critical." The reactor's adjoining sections were used for assembly of fuel rods, disassembly of fuel rods, and purification of reactor cooling water. The cylinder's concrete stack provided an emergency exhaust for the building and ground-level employees in the case of contamination.


In 1963, after ten years of operation, a defective fuel rod released Cesium 137 and other chemicals into the man-made Par Pond, situated next to the reactor.1 R Reactor also suffered from several unrelated leaks and was in an overall state of degeneration. Then, in his January 1964 State of the Union Address, President Johnson called for an immediate reduction in the arms race. The reactor closed June 17, 1964 - just six months later.


R-Reactor is now in a state of decommissioning or decontamination. The final step in the decommissioning process is to fill the reactors with a low-density cement injected with foaming agents. This turns the decommissioned reactors into solid, impenetrable blocks. This process was completed in 2011. You can read about this and other SRS cleanup projects funded by the Recovery Act here.


More


Five heavy water production reactors were built at the Savannah River Site (SRS) near Aiken, South Carolina between 1953 and 1955. The production reactors used heavy water as a moderator primary cooling medium. The primary coolant was completely contained in the reactor building. Heat was extracted through the use of heat exchangers cooled by water from the Savannah River.


Through 1988, the Savannah River reactors produced 36.1 metric tons of plutonium. The Savannah River production by fiscal year is presented in Figure 7 and Table 3.

While the main products of the Savannah River reactors were weapon grade plutonium and tritium, a variety of isotope products including Uranium-233, Americium-242, Curium-244, Polonium-210, Cobalt-60, Plutonium-238, Plutonium-242, and Californium-252 were also produced.


The five Savannah River reactors each were originally designed to operate at less than 500 megawatts (MW) thermal. During the period from 1955 through 1965, the thermal power levels of the reactors were increased to approximately 2500 MW by engineering enhancements such as installing larger pumps, more heat exchangers, larger pipes and optimizing the reactor physics, internal coolant flow designs and improved fuel element designs.


Blending


The Savannah River reactors produced primarily weapon grade plutonium with a Pu-240 content of about 6 percent. Starting in 1981, to increase the availability of plutonium for the weapons program, the Savannah River P, K, C-Reactors were operated to produce weapon grade plutonium with a 3 percent Pu-240 content. This method of operating accelerated reactor operations, decreased target irradiation time, and increased fuel throughput.

From 1982 through 1990 the DOE was able to convert approximately 2.8 MT of fuel grade plutonium to weapon grade by blending the 3 percent Pu-240 with fuel grade plutonium. While blending increased the weapon grade plutonium inventory by 2.8 MT of plutonium, it also decreased the fuel grade plutonium by an equivalent amount. Of the 2.8 MT of fuel grade plutonium blended to weapon grade, 2.4 MT was blended at Savannah River, and 0.4 MT at Hanford.



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