Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Savannah River Site (AKA Enterprise SRS), which is a 300 square mile complex situated in South Carolina near the Georgia border. Originally created as a part of the Manhattan Project, the Site now consists of multiple agencies with intersecting scientific missions. Some of the prominent activities include Environmental Management of legacy waste, reprocessing of weapons materials and monitoring the impacts of these activities on the local ecosystem.
I was lucky enough to see some aspect of each of these activities during my trip. I’ve written about what to do with nuclear waste before- but this was a real life overview of all of the ways to manage these materials.
A really interesting group called the “Enterprise SRS Sounding Board” facilitated my visit. Due to the industry wide generation gap (many young professionals & many nearing retirement, but few in between) and the Site-specific challenge completing clean up activities and moving towards new, innovation focused activities – the current leadership wisely put together this group of young professionals to encourage creative thinking and collaboration among it’s future leaders. The members of the Sounding Board represent the many agencies and activities throughout the Site, including the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration and each of their subsidiaries.
Two members of the Sounding Board in particular, Marissa Reigel and Brittany Williamson (read her recent Op Ed here), were my hosts and guides for the day. They shared two of the group’s big concerns with me:
- The local community doesn’t have a strong understanding of what happens at Enterprise SRS. There is a sense of the Site being a scary, secretive place.
- Current competitive frameworks for funding within Enterprise SRS (and within the larger Department of Energy system) may not be the best way to manage ever-shrinking financial resources in the future.
Both in terms of external outreach & communications and internal resource management, the Sounding Board is looking for contemporary ways of managing these challenges as they move into leadership roles. As I learned during my tour, there is good reason for this group to support the evolution of Enterprise SRS. It’s unlike any other facility in the world and it’s well worth fighting for.
My day began with a tour of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), which is approximately 60% constructed and bustling with workers. Last year I visited La Hague in France, the sister site to the MOX facility. While the two facilities share key reprocessing technology, they serve slightly different purposes. La Hague reprocesses spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants, turns it back into fuel and sends it back to the owner for reuse. MOX on the other hand is actually part of a nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Russia.
During the Cold War both the U.S. and Russia built up huge weapons arsenals – the proverbial Arms Race. For Millennials like myself this is a difficult piece of American history, but something we must learn from and continue to clean up after nonetheless. Thankfully over the past 20 years much progress has been made through a program called Megatons to Megawatts, which ended last year after reducing global weapons stockpiles by two-thirds (amazing!). Basically, 10% of America’s electricity has been coming from reprocessed weapons grade Uranium from Russia’s stockpile for the last two decades. Pretty freakin’ cool. And we learned an important lesson- in practice the single most effective way to get rid of weapons materials is to use them as nuclear fuel, which makes the materials unviable for other uses.
“…in practice the single most effective way to get rid of weapons materials is to use them as nuclear fuel…”
The next phase of reducing weapons stockpiles builds on the momentum of Megatons to Megawatts, now focusing on remaining Plutonium. Enter MOX: America’s solution to transforming our weapons Plutonium into carbon-free electricity. The facility is basically a miniature version of France’s reprocessing facilities, but designed to take in Plutonium (rather than spent fuel) and output fuel for commercial nuclear reactors of all kinds.
Dan Hanson, also a member of the Sounding Board, oversees installation of hot cells (radiation shielding containers for handling nuclear materials) for the MOX facility. Dan, who served at my tour guide of MOX, is incredibly enthusiastic about his work. He shared the inner workings of the facility- visible in the construction, including enough steel to build the Eifel Tower 3 times over. For security reasons I was unable to take pictures, but suffice to say the MOX facility will offer a sophisticated technology- on par with the important political and social challenges it was designed to resolve.
Interestingly, MOX is not Enterprise SRS’s first reprocessing facility. In fact they have had many over the years, including the still active H-Canyon. This facility was designed to be extremely flexible and can be used to separate any number of nuclear materials into usable components and waste materials. And Enterprise SRS has on site glass vitrification for high level waste and “salt waste processing” for the low level stuff. Yes- you read that all correctly- we do reprocess here in the U.S., we do have long term waste storage solutions currently in use – for many complicated reasons, we just haven’t put it to use in managing commercial nuclear materials yet.
In my opinion it would be wise to utilize the people, facilities and technologies already in place at SRS to help manage and possibly store commercial nuclear materials, while still pursuing both Yucca Mountain and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant as geological repositories.
Adopting an “All of the Above: Nuclear Waste” strategy would increase flexibility in responding to the myriad potential uses of these materials in the long run- like medicine, reprocessing and advance reactor fuel- while still preparing to bury true waste materials that cannot otherwise be reused. Additionally, ditching the “silver bullet” approach to nuclear waste management would dramatically lessen the stigma of the communities managing these materials, while encouraging collaboration between them. No one wants to be the country’s nuclear waste dump, but a lot of places would likely want to be a part of a nation-wide effort to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle nuclear materials – and SRS has decades of experience to help lead such an effort.
And speaking of collaboration, the last stop on my tour was the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Enterprise SRS had provided “unprecedented access” to the Lab for tracking all types of industrial pollution according to resident Geneticist and Scientific Researcher, Stacey Lance (Lance is also a Sounding Board member). Because of the huge size and restricted nature of the site, it has become something of a haven for local wildlife, what Lance calls a “bastion of biodiversity”.
Known radiological, fossil fuel and construction zones overlapping with protected animal habitats have unwittingly provided an excellent framework for Lance’s research on genetic and evolutionary changes driven by industrial pollutants of all kinds. The lab has likewise supported research in 50 other countries by identifying base-line genetic information of different animal species through tissue testing. Lance’s research has far reaching implications in terms of better understanding not only animal health and well being, but also public and environmental health, and even regulation.
I cannot fully express how impressed I am with the Savannah River Site, so I will leave you instead with these pictures of the adorable creatures I encountered at the Ecology Lab. Please enjoy: