The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), a predecessor agency of the Department of Energy (DOE), established the Savannah River Site (SRS) in the early 1950s. The SRS occupies an area of approximately 800 square kilometers (300 square miles) adjacent to the Savannah River, primarily in Aiken and Barnwell Counties in South Carolina. The Site is approximately 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Augusta, Georgia, and 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Aiken, South Carolina (Figure 1-1). Figure 1-2 shows the locations of the principal SRS facilities, which began operation between 1951 and 1954.
The SRS mission for the past 40 years has been the production of special radioactive isotopes to support national programs. Primarily, this mission was the production of strategic isotopes (plutonium-239 and tritium) used in the development and production of nuclear weapons for national defense. The Site produced other special isotopes (e.g., californium-252, plutonium-238, americium-241) to support research in nuclear medicine, space exploration, and commercial applications. To produce the isotopes, DOE fabricated selected materials into metal targets and irradiated them in the SRS reactors. The targets and reactor fuel were dissolved in acid and the special isotopes were chemically separated and converted to a solid form, either an oxide powder or a metal. The oxide or metal was fabricated into a usable form at the SRS or at other DOE sites. The final form of the material depended on the application (nuclear weapon component, encapsulated medical source, power source, etc.). Figure 1-3 shows the historic SRS production cycle.
Due to the large-scale chemical separation capabilities at the SRS, materials containing significant quantities of plutonium-239, uranium-235, and other special isotopes were shipped to the SRS for processing and recovery. The materials were in a wide variety of physical shapes and forms, including (1) small encapsulated plutonium sources returned from use by national laboratories and domestic universities; (2) cans or drums of scrap metals and oxides from weapon manufacturing operations at other DOE sites; (3) irradiated metal fuel rods, tubes, plates, or assemblies from experimental DOE reactors, university research reactors, and foreign research reactors; and (4) cans, bottles, or drums containing residues or samples used in laboratory experiments at other DOE sites. All the materials were stored until they could be dissolved and processed in the chemical separations facilities. The small sources, scrap metals, oxides, residues, and samples were typically stored in cans, bottles, or drums in safeguarded concrete vaults. The irradiated fuel and targets were stored underwater in metal racks or buckets. The offsite materials were typically processed in conjunction
with the materials produced at the SRS. Figure 1-4 shows the historic processing and recovery cycle for scrap materials received from off the SRS. Figure 1-5 shows the historic reprocessing cycle for spent fuel received.
In March 1992, DOE suspended chemical reprocessing and recovery activities at the SRS to address a potential safety concern regarding the survival of the F- and H-Canyon ventilation systems in the event of an earthquake. That concern was addressed. However, before the resumption of reprocessing, the Secretary of Energy directed that the SRS phase out defense-related chemical separations activities in these facilities (DOE 1992). World events in the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in the end of the Cold War and a reduction in the demand for new material for nuclear weapons. DOE stopped operating the SRS reactors to produce strategic isotopes. DOE has not processed nuclear materials at the SRS chemical separations facilities to recover special isotopes since March 1992, with the exception of scrap materials containing plutonium-238. DOE continued the processing of plutonium-238 to support future National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) exploratory space missions.
The cessation in processing operations resulted in a large inventory of nuclear materials caught in various stages of the historic production (fabrication, irradiation, reprocessing, and recovery) cycle. These materials include irradiated and unirradiated reactor fuel, targets, and components; solutions containing dissolved nuclear materials and recovered isotopes in stainless-steel tanks; and product and scrap forms of metals or oxides in containers (cans, drums, etc.) typically used for temporary storage or shipment offsite.
With the end of the Cold War, the primary mission of the nuclear production facilities at the SRS has changed to the storage and management of nuclear materials until DOE can make and implement decisions on the ultimate disposition of the materials. DOE is evaluating various strategies for the long-term management of nuclear material. Section 1.6 describes these evaluations. DOE anticipates that it might need as long as 10 years to make and fully implement management decisions on all these materials. Until DOE can implement these decisions, the large inventory of nuclear materials at the SRS requires continued management.
Some of the methods of storage for these materials pose risks to the environment or the safety and health of SRS workers or the public because, at the time DOE suspended the production cycle, many nuclear materials were in a form or were stored in a manner that was acceptable for only a temporary period (e.g., 1 to 2 years). Thus, the continued storage of some of the materials poses risks. In some cases, the material's physical or chemical form poses the risks; in other cases, the material simply needs to be repackaged or moved to another location to ensure its safe storage. DOE needs to either eliminate (if possible) or reduce the risks posed by continued storage of these materials.
Thank you for your attention.
FOLLOW-UP March 31, 2011
Yesterday I posted an editorial to Christian Gallery News Service entitled "Three Particles of Plutonium 239"--the article you're presently reading--and I sent notice to a couple of thousand of my closest and dearest friends on my email and Facebook list.
Some of you chewed me out. For example, one said, "I regard the Christian Gallery as morally irresponsible to forecast cancer three deaths right down to individual personalities. The presence of the I-131 isotope in the atmosphere is factual, but no others to my knowledge. Certain news organizations and prominent right wing publicists would choose to scare the hell out of the public with this story. I don't appreciate your passing it on their version as verified fact." Another said, "I refuse to engage in "the sky is falling" hysteria perpetrated by politicians and the media." Both examples seemed to imply that I was perpetuating "hysteria" by the article I wrote.
As those who actually read my editorial will have learned by the end of the article, I was attempting to warn people about the Savannah River Site here in Georgia.
Apparently some who actually read the article realized follow-up was necessary because CNN released a new report today entitled "Fukushima shines light on U.S. problem: 63,000 tons of spent fuel." That CNN report can be found at http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/03/30/spent.nuclear.fuel/index.html?hpt=T2
While today's CNN news article does not mention the Savannah River Site by name, it does say, "As of January 2010, an estimated 63,000 metric tons of spent fuel was in storage at U.S. power plants or storage facilities, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission." While focusing on how we are handling nuclear materials at power plants and making other "storage facilities" an afterthought, the CNN article still strongly suggests that sites like the Savannah River Site are in grave danger of becoming "cloud shine" that has the capacity to make my little forecast of death from lung cancer look more like a mere hint of the death that could be inflicted on Americans if something isn't done quickly instead of hysteria.
I understand the messenger of truly terrible tidings is often the victim of those tidings, but still I don't have to let myself be chewed out without at least an I told you so.