Shining Light on the Savannah River Site

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:

Day 72: The Grand Finale- AREVA’s La Hague Nuclear Reprocessing Facility

If I could only use one word to describe France it would be sophisticated. The country has such a genuine and beautifully nuanced feel. As a culture, the French do not oversimplify. Every detail is important. The architecture is wonderfully complex- the food, the wine, the cheese- everything is created with an almost unimaginable level of care. French culture is truly unique- there is not another place like it in the world.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, the French energy mix is also absolutely unique among its peers. During the oil crisis of the 1970’s many countries were forced to rethink their energy policies and move away from foreign oil consumption. But unlike its neighbors who moved to a mix of nuclear, coal and gas thinking that energy diversity was the best solution- France doubled down on the most sophisticated energy source, ensuring their energy independence and ultimately setting them up to become a nuclear technology exporter. This decision has served them very well.

In addition to generating approximately 80% of their electricity with nuclear energy, there is another aspect to nuclear technology that the French do like no one else: spent nuclear fuel reprocessing. Instead of just pulling spent nuclear fuel out of reactors and storing like we do in the U.S., the French recycle that material and reuse it in the form of Mixed Oxide Fuel and Enriched Uranium Fuel. Reprocessing reduces the amount of waste by a factor of 5 and reduces toxicity by a factor of 10.

This is achieved through a chemical process that involves dissolving the spent nuclear fuel and then separating out the different materials it contains- 96% of which are reusable. The remaining 4%, the small amount of true waste, is mixed into glass, which stabilizes the materials for storage. Additionally the French reprocess spent nuclear fuel for many other countries including: Japan, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Although reprocessing technology was originally developed in the U.S., the French have embraced this process and are now involved in helping the U.S. build a reprocessing facility as a part of a nonproliferation treaty with Russia, and China just announced it is also investing in a reprocessing facility in collaboration with AREVA.

For the final site visit of the European leg of Diary of a Nuclear Tourist I got to visit AREVA’s La Hague, the facility where spent fuel starts its journey to becoming usable fuel again. I was accompanied by the epically fun David Hess from the World Nuclear Association and our gracious host, AREVA’s Katherine Berezowskyj. Like David and myself, Katherine became interested in nuclear energy after realizing that misperceptions of these technologies were inhibiting our collective ability to respond to major challenges like climate change and energy poverty. An American living in Paris, Katherine has really been my sprit guide for navigating much of this trip, so getting to meet her in person was wonderful. I’m guessing the three of us are in the running for most excited tour group to ever enter the facility.

Katherine, David and Suzy- the most excited tour group ever.

Katherine, David and Suzy- the most excited tour group ever.

Davis wore a special t-shirt for the occasion.

David wore a special t-shirt for the occasion.

Our journey started at the most beautiful visitor’s center I’ve ever seen, overlooking the Normandy coast. AREVA’s Philippe Mundreuil and Caroline Jourdain greeted us with coffee, cookies and a presentation about the La Hague. Philippe is a Public Relations Officer and helps manage the visitor’s center, and Caroline is the Director of Programs and Customer Relations (got to love seeing women in leadership positions in the nuclear sector!). David and I had lots and lots of questions- about the technology, local politics, and community relations- that Caroline patiently answered one by one. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in this presentation is that AREVA has identified a potential cancer treatment, which is currently under going clinical trials. Basically, nuclear reprocessing experts at La Hague “developed an innovative processes to extract212Pb from nuclear materials used in AREVA’s activities.” Let me repeat that: nuclear materials are a potential cancer cure. I just find this to be absolutely astounding! What a shift in the cultural narrative about “nuclear waste”!

After a beautiful lunch, we left the visitor’s center and all headed into the actual reprocessing facility. It’s a really interesting series of building, painted all different colors, which I appreciated! I also really appreciated that they had raised an American flag for me- like I said- the French do not forget the details!! The facility sees about 10,000 visitors per year with participants ranging from politians to school children. After getting through multiple security clearances we arrived at our first stop: a newly received casks of spent nuclear fuel. La Hague receives approximately one of these casks each day. We were able to touch the outside of the cask with our bare hands, which was pretty amazing!

You mean we can touch it?!

You mean we can touch it?!

We followed the fuel, so to speak, into the facility where we got to see the hotbox where it is unloaded. At this point David and I kind of lost our minds because it was the first time we had each seen real spent nuclear fuel. When you spend most of your waking hours trying to figure out how to better communicate about nuclear energy, getting to see the material in person is a pretty monumental experience!

OMG! Real spent fuel!

OMG! Real spent fuel!

Our next stop was the spent fuel pool, where the fuel is stored for anywhere from a few days to a few years before going through chemical reprocessing. The pool is really quite beautiful and peaceful. It’s incredible to think that water is all you need as a protectant from radiation. No special gear- our dosimeters just sat at zero.

Spent fuel pool

Spent fuel pool

We continued to follow the fuel, but had to learn about the chemical and verification processes using models, since these areas are all operated remotely- as in it’s all done with ROBOTS! We did get to see two operators working with one of the remote handling arms and it is such an interesting and specialized skill!


ROBOTS!!! This is someone’s real job- moving radioactive stuff around with robotic arms- how cool!

We wrapped up the tour with a walk through of the control room, which is reminiscent of the legendary open office layouts of Pixar and Facebook- except this facility was built decades before. Oh yeah- I haven’t mentioned that AREVA has been reprocessing spent nuclear fuel for more than thirty years- literally since before I was born. So they really have the transport, the process and all of the other potential challenges worked out. Additionally, they are saving their spent MOX fuel as a strategic resource for advanced nuclear reactors- so they are thinking about the future as well.

This visit was a perfect close to a truly life-changing journey. I feel that I have a much better understanding of the global nuclear industry and the ways we can start to solve some of the big challenges facing our modern world. A major “thank you” to Katherine, Philippe and Caroline for providing this incredible site tour!! And thanks to David for being an awesome, super fun travel companion- and to the World Nuclear Association for letting him out of the office for a few days for this adventure! And finally another huge “thank you” to AREVA and Fuel Cycle Week and American Crane for supporting my creative vision and providing the resources I needed to execute this project. I am so grateful for this experience and grateful for having sponsors that value and support this type of innovative personal and professional development! Thanks for caring about the details.

Day 56: COVRA- Storing Nuclear Waste with Style

In January of last year, the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) laid out an outline for how to move forward with managing the U.S.’s nuclear waste. In addition to recommending one or more long-term geologic repositories, they also recommended one or more interim, consolidated waste facilities. The committee also stated that any new facilities should be […] Read more »

Day 41: Full Steam Ahead in the UK

After a few lovely days in Oxford two weeks ago, I made a brief stop in London to check in with some of the excellent organizations working on communications, education and outreach in the nuclear sector in the UK. I stopped in at the World Nuclear Association (WNA) Offices- which is also the headquarters of the […] Read more »

The Power of Personal Agency

Over the Easter break I posted an uncharacteristically “angry” post called, “Who has the right to Moral Outrage?” The article covered some tough ground, including my own experience as an interventional radiology patient, as well as the ongoing struggle of aggressively being told that I don’t know what I know by anti-nuclear activists. When I […] Read more »

Who has the right to moral outrage? This girl. (And so do you.)

This week I have been fighting intellectual battles on two fronts, both of which have left me feeling, well, angry. As you might have noticed anger is an emotion than we humans really struggle with and it’s generally discouraged. There are a lot of old adages about focusing anger into something constructive and it seems that the […] Read more »

Day 40: Interview With Mark Lynas- A Message of Hope

Last week while visiting Oxford, writer and environmentalist Mark Lynas was kind enough to meet me for a coffee and answered some of my questions about his work. Lynas has generated quite a lot of media controversy in recent months and has experienced considerable backlash from the environmental movement for his views on energy and […] Read more »

Day 39: Interview With Wade Allison – Understanding Radiation

Last week I was very honored to spend a few days at Oxford University with one of my favorite nukes: Wade Allison. Allison is an Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oxford University and since 2006 has been an active public educator about all things nuclear. He published the book Radiation and Reason in 2009 and is currently working on a follow up […] Read more »

Day 34: Poland’s Nuclear Ambitions

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Warsaw, Poland to visit the Swierk National Centre for Nuclear Research.  My host and guide was Ludwik Dobrzynski the director of the educational outreach program at the Centre, as well as a professor of Physics and member of the UNSCEAR Committee on the effects of ionizing […] Read more »