The Savannah River Site (SRS) occupies some 300 sq-mi of south-central South Carolina along the Savannah River between the towns of Barnwell and Aiken. The city of Augusta, Georgia is fifteen miles northwest of the site. The facility is operated by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, LLC, a consortium headed by Flour Daniel, Northrop Grumman, and Honeywell. It employs about 9,000 people, of which 1,400 support NNSA activities. This huge reservation was established by eminent domain in November 1950 and construction was largely completed by 1956. At its peak, the plant included five heavy-water-moderated production reactors; fabrication facilities for enriched-uranium driver fuel and targets for plutonium and tritium production; a heavy water plant; a tritium extraction, purification, and reservoir-loading complex; and two chemical separation plants. Over a 35-year period, the plant produced all of the tritium and a portion of the plutonium used in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.
Following the end of the Cold War, production of weapons materials ceased and the remaining production reactors were shut down. Tritium purification and loading operations have continued, but the main mission of SRS for the past two decades has been nuclear waste management and environmental cleanup. The cleanup of SRS has already cost tens of billions of dollars and no end is yet in sight.
In the late 1990s, SRS acquired a new mission in a non-proliferation deal with the Russians that remains controversial- 'disposition' of 34 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium by converting it into plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors. Use of this technology in the civil sector creates inventories of separated plutonium potentially usable in weapons, and thus has significant negative implications for nuclear security and non-proliferation. A Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) is currently under construction at SRS, which is slated to cost at least $5 billion. Operation of the MFFF will require weapons plutonium feedstock that has been converted from metallic to oxide form. This in turn will require construction of a Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF), currently estimated to cost $2 billion.
The reprocessing, waste management, and environmental remediation missions at SRS are under the direction of the DOE's Environmental Management Program, while the MOX disposition effort falls within the purview of NNSA's Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Program.
The only activities at SRS that continue to support the nuclear weapons stockpile, and therefore remain a part of NNSA's nuclear weapons complex, are the tritium missions, which employ some 450 workers, and involve extraction, purification, and loading of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that is used to 'boost' the performance of the plutonium pit primaries in nuclear weapons. (More details)
Savannah River Site Tritium Missions:
- Tritium Supply - extraction of tritium from irradiated target rods and management of the tritium inventory for the nuclear stockpile.
- Nuclear Stockpile Maintenance - loading of tritium and deuterium into reservoirs that are used in the gas transfer system of a nuclear weapon.
- Nuclear Stockpile Evaluation - surveillance of gas transfer systems to assure reliability in the absence of nuclear testing.
- Helium-3 Recovery - recovery of this byproduct of tritium's radioactive decay for use in neutron detectors and various commercial applications.
(Source: National Nuclear Security Administration)
The recently modernized SRS Tritium Facilities consist of an interconnected set of production, processing, support, and administrative buildings located within a 25-acre compound in the H-Area.
The New Manufacturing Building is the reservoir loading and unloading facility. This underground facility has been in operation since 1993 and houses the gas processing systems necessary to remove, separate, and purify hydrogen isotope gas streams (primarily recycled from active or retired nuclear weapons). The desired mix of isotopes is then reloaded into reservoirs destined to be put back into weapons in the active stockpile.
Manufacturing Building No. 3 is primarily used for reservoir finishing, quality assurance activities, and shipping and receiving of reservoirs. This building also houses an analytical laboratory, an inert reservoir loading facility, and other support activities.
The Pressure Testing Facility is the Helium-3 (He-3) processing facility. This facility is nearing the end of its useful life. He-3 processing is scheduled to be relocated into the New Manufacturing Building.
The Material Testing Facility, completed in 2004, contains environmental chambers and ovens, which support the reservoir storage program, and a metallurgical laboratory used for analysis of tritium-contaminated components.
The Reclamation Building is a contaminated machine shop used to reclaim reservoirs that were returned from the field. During this process, the existing fill stem is removed and replaced with a new stem. The reservoir is subsequently inspected and returned to 'War Reserve' status.
Production of tritium now occurs off-site, in 'Tritium Producing Burnable Absorber Rods' (TPBARs) that are irradiated in the cores of TVA's Watts Bar nuclear reactors. The irradiated TPBARs are shipped from Tennessee to the SRS H-Area Tritium Facilities, where they are processed in the Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF), which was completed in November 2006. This facility has two parts- the Remote Handling Building, where tritium is extracted from the TPBARs by heating them in furnaces, and a Processing Building, where the gas is purified before being transferred to the New Manufacturing Building for reservoir loading.
NNSA also performs surveillance on gas transfer systems at SRS. This includes extensive testing and metallographic evaluation. Reservoirs are then reloaded, reinspected, and shipped to either DoD sites for exchange operations involving active stockpile weapons, or to NNSA's Pantex Plant for installation in weapons undergoing Life Extension Programs.
SRS in NNSA's 'Complex Transformation'
Under Complex Transformation, NNSA is planning to continue all current activities at SRS, to transfer tritium R&D activities from other sites to SRS, and to expand operations in support of reactor-based disposition of excess plutonium. NNSA's plan includes building both the PDCF and a new Waste Solidification Building (to treat waste from the MFFF and the PDCF) at SRS.
The MOX Fiasco
The MOX facility at the SRS is now vastly over budget, and a slow erosion of the basic terms of the underlying agreement with Russia are set to produce results which are the opposite of those intended.
Read how this happened, and get the latest updates to the story on our MOX page.
Augusta Chronicle July 9:
White House threatens veto of House bill with MOX construction funding
German Nuke Waste to SRS?
June 2015: Greenpeace Has Filed Complaint with the European Commission to Stop German Nuclear Waste Export to US Savannah River Site- (story)
SRS Stockpiling High-Level Nuclear Waste
Editorial July 13, 2014, Spartanburg, S.C.:
"Too much high-level nuclear waste is already being stockpiled at the Savannah River Site, an ecologically sensitive location that wasn't designed for long-term storage of the dangerous material. So the last thing we should be doing is importing more nuclear waste into the site from Germany. But that's the plan the federal government is working on..." ref: Taking in German waste is the latest federal task for the Savannah River Site
- Editorial: Don't Dump This On Us Augusta Chronicle July 6, 2014
- Editorial: New German Waste Another Bad Signal Aiken Standard July 7, 2014
- Editorial: Don't Bring More Nuclear Waste To SRS Greenville News May 2, 2014
Oct. 16, 2017: Bechtel Selected for Radioactive Waste Cleanup at SRS
Sources: Transforming the U.S. Strategic Posture and Weapons Complex For Transition to a Nuclear Weapons-Free World, Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Policy Network, April 2009.
The members of the Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation Policy Network include Nuclear Watch New Mexico along with national organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Project On Government Oversight; Tri-Valley CAREs, near the Lawrence Livermore National Lab; the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, near the Kansas City Plant; and JustPeace of Texas, near the Pantex Plant.