by Karen Guevara
In celebration of this milestone “birthday” for the site, let’s look back at its life to date.
The event that led to the decision to build a new defense nuclear plant was the Soviet Union’s September 5, 1949 detonation of its first atomic bomb. The United States’ network of Manhattan Project defense nuclear sites – Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico – had helped end World War II.
The Soviet detonation bomb detonation greatly concerned President Harry S. Truman. He recognized the significance of the Soviet Union’s bomb: U.S. superiority in the atomic field was no longer assured. Fearing the rise of the aggressive Russians, he felt that only a massive American arsenal of weaponry – primarily nuclear – could keep the new enemy at bay.
In the years since the end of World War II, nuclear research had become focused on fusion (combining atoms to release energy). The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs relied on fission (splitting atoms to release energy). The difference: fusion bombs could release three to four times more energy than fission bombs.
To Truman, the Soviet’s bomb test meant there was no time left if the U.S. was going to maintain its defense nuclear edge. In November 1949, President Truman established a committee of the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor to today’s Department of Energy). He charged them to recommend whether – and if so, where – the U.S. should proceed with construction of a new plant to build a thermonuclear bomb, also known as a hydrogen bomb or fusion bomb.
Over the next year, a total of 114 potential sites were considered. The criteria established for the ideal site were:
- Low population area near high population communities (low enough that relatively few residents would have to be displaced to build the plant, but near high population communities to provide work force labor and housing)
- Freedom from floods and major storms (to protect the nuclear facilities from natural disasters)
- Water (sufficient to cool the reactors and to distill “heavy water” – a naturally occurring, non-radioactive variety of water – for use in the reactors)
- Accessibility by existing rail, river and road transportation systems (to support construction of the plant)
- Military considerations (considering potential range of Soviet Union missiles)
- Safety factors (enough land area that a nuclear accident at the site would not impact large numbers of residents)
On November 17, 1950, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) met with President Truman to recommend construction of a new defense nuclear facility in the Central Savannah River Area. On November 28, 1950, just days after Thanksgiving, the AEC publicly announced the decision to build the Savannah River Plant (SRP). The government contracted with E.I. du Pont de Nemours to construct and manage the project.
Over the next 18 months, the government acquired land for the 310-square-mile SRP. About one-third of the area was cultivated or pasture land; the rest was wooded. The site displaced 6,500 to 8,000 farmers, most of whom were African-American. Approximately 1,500 families were relocated from Ellenton, Dunbarton, Hawthorne, Meyers Mill, Robbins, and Leigh. Even the dead were displaced; approximately 5,300 graves were removed from 125 cemeteries. By April 1, 1952, the US government had acquired the land to begin constructing the plant.
The scale of the SRP construction project was massive. The plant included five nuclear reactors, uranium fuel fabrication facilities, two large chemical separations and reprocessing “canyon” facilities, two massive “tank farms” for storing the radioactive liquids from plutonium separation, plutonium handling facilities, multiple coal-fired power plants, as well as laboratory facilities. A 1954 informational booklet by the Bank of Greenwood offered the following statistics about the immensity of the plant:
- The 136,000 carloads of materials needed would, if placed in a single giant train, reach from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, in New York City.
- The 39,149,842 cubic yards of dirt excavated is equivalent to a wall 10 feet high and 6 feet wide extending from Atlanta, Georgia, to Portland, Oregon. The 39,149,842 cubic yards is approximately one-sixth of the 220,538,000 cubic yards required in digging the Panama Canal.
- The 1,452,482 cubic yards of concrete poured is around one-third of the total concrete (4,400,000 cubic yards) in the Grand Coulee Dam.
- The 85,000,000 board feet of lumber required could build 15,385 houses, enough to house a town of 46,155 people (three to a house).
- The 118,449 tons of reinforcing steel required is equivalent to 3,308 railroad carloads, or a train 30 miles long.
- The 2,000,000 blueprints required are equivalent to a roll of paper 24 inches wide that would reach from Atlanta, Georgia, to Seattle, Washington (2,000 miles in a straight line).
- The 200,646-acre plant is one and one half times as large as the City of Chicago and four times that of metropolitan Washington, D.C. [in that time period]
- The approximate $1.5 billion needed to build the plant exceeded the total volume of deposits of all banks in South Carolina during 1950 by around $800 million.
Seventy-five percent of plant construction took place in 1952 and 1953. At its peak, SRP employed 38,582 workers. The laborer’s average work week required 54 hours to complete this colossal construction.
To help ensure the secrecy of the mission, A-Z alphabetical identifiers were established for the various areas of the site. Thus, workers were taught to talk in a sort of code – “I work in H Area” versus “I work in the chemical separations Canyon recovering plutonium.” This code continues to this day. (There is no “Q” area of the site; clever site employees have therefore assigned this identifier to Carolina Barbeque, which sits just outside the site’s perimeter!)
SRP began its nuclear operations in 1953. In December R reactor was the first of SRP’s five reactors (C, K, L, P, and R) to come online. The next was P reactor in February 1954. All five reactors were operating by the end of March 1955.
The F Canyon facility came online in November 1954, followed by H Canyon in July 1954. Separation of tritium – a component that increases the explosiveness within a nuclear warhead – began in F area in 1955.
SRP shipped its first plutonium offsite on December 28, 1954. (Although many locals refer to SRP as “the Bomb Plant,” in fact, bombs were never produced here. Instead, the plutonium was shipped offsite to the Rocky Flats plant near Denver, Colorado, for bomb assembly; that facility is closed now.)
Tritium-filled reservoirs were shipped offsite as well. Between 1955 and 1964, SRP produced approximately half of the nation’s plutonium and the majority of its tritium.
SRP also participated in President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace project to develop nuclear power. SRP’s laboratory conducted significant research into development of nuclear power reactors, including construction of the Heavy Water Components Test Reactor in 1962.
In June 1956, Drs. Clyde Cowan and Frederick Reines announced they had discovered “free neutrinos” in P Reactor. Neutrinos are the smallest component of matter and are critical to understanding the age of our universe.
SRP also produced radioactive isotope heat sources for military outposts in the Arctic, as well as for the U.S. space program. These consist of encapsulating radioactive materials into a metallic shield and allowing the radioactive decay to provide a heat source. (Readers who have seen the recent movie, The Martian may recall the scene in which Matt Damon’s character digs up the isotopic heat source to keep him warm inside his Mars rover.) SRP plutonium-238 has actually powered 30 deep space explorations, including three Mars landers: Viking 1, Viking 2, and Pathfinder.
Between 1953 and 1988, SRP produced 36 metric tons of plutonium, without any nuclear accidents.
By the end of the 1980s, the Cold War had thawed. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced the liberalizing reforms of “perestroika” (reorganization) and “glasnost” (openness). This raised questions about how many nuclear weapons – and how much tritium – the U.S. would need, given the dissolution of the Soviet Union and arms reduction treaties.
In addition, the Cold War secrecy that shrouded defense nuclear activities was being questioned. SRP’s reactors, as well as those at the Manhattan Project sites, had been constructed according to internal Atomic Energy Commission nuclear safety regulations. The defense reactors had operated safely for decades, but Cold War secrecy meant they’d been isolated from safety reforms undertaken by the commercial nuclear power industry after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, when a cooling malfunction caused part of the reactor’s core to melt.
Congress was concerned about unaddressed environmental issues at the defense nuclear facilities. National environmental laws were passed in the 1980s, most notably the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (also known as “Superfund”) and the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
In 1985, SRP’s Department of Energy site manager, Robert Morgan, signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. In it, he pledged that SRP would follow state environmental laws.
The SRP was changing in scope and mission from the early days, and as a result, DuPont informed the Department of Energy in 1987 that it would step down from managing the Savannah River Plant in two years’ time.
In 1989, contractor management of SRP facilities changed for the first time. As DuPont exited, Westinghouse assumed the role of managing contractor under the name of Westinghouse Savannah River Company, or WSRC.
In fact, the name of the site itself changed – no longer a plant that produced plutonium, it now became the Savannah River Site, or SRS.
The focus permanently shifted from production to cleanup.
Notable Career Accomplishments
SRS has many accomplishments worthy of recognition. Most of the production-related successes already have been mentioned. The cleanup accomplishments are equally noteworthy.
SRS has completed cleaning up approximately 77 percent of its 515 waste sites. These waste sites include a few areas of radioactive contamination, but most are sites where industrial contaminants were spilled – things like oil from motor pools, or turpentine-soaked rags and paint cans from machine shops. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, we didn’t realize that many of these contaminants never decay naturally; it was common for many gas stations to change a car’s oil, and then dump the old oil into a sewer or sump. It was the same way at the old SRP production facilities.
More than 9,000 groundwater and environmental samples are collected at SRS and surrounding locations each year, to ensure SRS operations are not adversely affecting surrounding communities.
SRS has cleaned up 85 percent of its industrial footprint and over 25 percent of its excess facilities, those no longer needed for production or ongoing Site missions. This includes the on-site decommissioning of P and R reactors.
The Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) has been operating since 1996 to encapsulate highly radioactive tank waste into borosilicate glass. Waste in this glassified form is stored onsite in stainless steel cylinders awaiting disposal in a yet-to-be-determined deep geologic repository. Since its start of operations, DWPF has produced 15 million pounds of solidified glass. As a result, six of the site’s 51 radioactive liquid waste tanks have been cleaned and closed.
Construction of the Salt Waste Processing Facility is currently underway to treat the portion of the tanks’ radioactive liquid waste that does not need to go through DWPF. At the time of SRP construction, the liquid waste tanks had to be built from carbon steel, since there was not enough stainless steel available in the U.S. As a result, SRP chemists purposefully added salt to neutralize the very acidic wastes (from plutonium and uranium separation) and prevent tank corrosion.
SRS has made significant strides in cleaning up “transuranic waste.” Literally, this term describes any radioactive elements that are heavier than uranium on the periodic table. Its significance is that these elements require special isolation from human beings. Through its operations, SRS created 30,000 containers of transuranic waste. Most of it consisted of protective clothing, tools, rags, equipment and miscellaneous items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico began disposal operations in March 1999. SRS has since made more than 1,650 shipments of transuranic waste.
Accomplishments with excess nuclear materials management are equally significant. To date, H Canyon has blended 22 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (suitable for weapons) into low-enriched uranium (suitable for power reactors) – the energy equivalent of 206 million barrels of oil. Since March 2003, 335 trailers of low enriched uranium have been shipped offsite to the Tennessee Valley Authority, where it is burned in their power reactors. That’s enough to power all of the homes in South Carolina for 8-1/2 years, or enough to power every home in the United States for 47 days!
Signs of Old Age
Like any other senior citizen, SRS is showing signs of its age. As with many American towns and cities, degrading infrastructure is a key issue for SRS.
Cleanup is the major focus of the Site. This mission and others will continue for many, many more decades. The site was able to decommission its last major coal-fired power plant in 2012, replacing it with three new woodchip-burning (“biomass”) steam plants.
The D-Area facility was the largest of SRP’s nine power plants, drawing up to 45 million gallons a day from the river and capable of generating 75 million watts of power, enough electricity to support Aiken. Now, the South Carolina Army National Guard has contracted to conduct troop training exercises around the old facility, noting that it resembles the types of power plants troops encounter in places like Afghanistan.
Site roads and railroads require constant attention. In 2009, $1.6 Billion in “Stimulus” funding was awarded to SRS through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. It brought a huge influx of workers to the site, including a large number of heavy construction trucks that seriously degraded some of the roadways, requiring several emergency closures and repairs.
While funding for mission-critical facility components is prioritized, there is often not sufficient funding for infrastructure systems. It’s like having the money to buy the big flat-screen TV but not having electricity get to the building because the electrical lines have broken. Or doing a beautiful kitchen upgrade but not having good tap water, because the plumbing has broken or the water tower is corroded.
What Lies Ahead
With around 12,000 employees today, SRS remains the dominant presence in the region, as it has since the 1950s.
Although there is often significant local press about budget woes for the Savannah River Site, it receives an average $1.9 billion annually in federal funding. The life-cycle projection for SRS cleanup forecasts completion in 2042, with a “to go” price tag of $74 billion.
SRS remains the only facility within the US for extracting, recycling, purifying and reloading tritium reservoirs for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The radioactive decay of tritium requires constant replenishment to maintain our country’s nuclear deterrent.
The Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (known as MOX) is under construction to fulfill an agreement with Russia. The U.S. and Russia each committed to remove 34 metric tons of weapons-grade purified plutonium from its stockpiles. This is plutonium that is no longer needed, given arms reduction treaties. MOX is designed to process this excess plutonium into a form that can be used in commercial power-generating reactors.
There are calls to evaluate the cost of the MOX facility (as there are with almost any federally-funded facilities that take a long time and more than one political administration to complete). But the need to address excess plutonium won’t go away.
The Savannah River National Laboratory has a bright future, performing world-class science to address real-world challenges. Since the 1950s, SRNL scientists have received 437 patents. The lab currently supports 20 federal U.S. agencies and works in 52 countries around the world.
SRNL opened the Nuclear Forensics Analysis Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Center supports the FBI and Department of Homeland Security with respect to radioactive evidence; to date, more than 800 FBI personnel have been trained in radiological forensic operations.
SRNL is providing cleanup technology support to the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors that in March 2011 suffered major damage from a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The support to Japan involves sharing some of SRS’s proven technological solutions to help Japan clean up from the Fukushima disaster more efficiently and safely than they had initially thought possible.
And so, as SRS reaches its 65th year, there is a lot of success to look back on and still some wonderful things to look forward to. SRS has been resilient, not just as a local employer but as a unique set of human and physical resources. It’s not what it was in 1951, when everyone feared that the Russians were coming; but neither has it outlived its usefulness. The Site is a puzzle to most of us who don’t work there, but it remains one of the few places the government can count on to accomplish its business. For all of SRS’s idiosyncrasies, we are fortunate to have it in our corner.
And we wish SRS – and all of its former and current workers – a happy birthday and best wishes for many more.
Karen Guevara is a retired executive from the Department of Energy, where she most recently served as a Savannah River Site senior manager. She spent much of her federal career in Washington, D.C., including a stint in the White House Office of Management and Budget. She has wisely decided to remain in Aiken where she is an active Rotarian, recreational golfer, choir singer, and budding writer.