Federal inspectors cite SRS concerns

Material stored from the 1950s focus of new report

A federal oversight board has new concerns about dangerously corroded spent fuel from the world’s first nuclear core meltdown a half century ago.

The material, now stored at Savannah River Site’s L Area, includes stainless steel clad fuel from the Sodium Reactor Experiment launched in California in the 1950s to determine if nuclear power could provide household electricity.

The sodium-cooled reactor made history in 1957 by powering homes in nearby Moorpark, and two years later, after an accidental coolant blockage, became the first reactor to experience a meltdown.

It was subsequently repaired before being shut down for good in 1964.

Today, 36 cans of spent fuel from that project are among more than 15,000 used fuel assemblies stored at SRS, where their eventual disposition remains in limbo while the U.S. Energy Department struggles to reorganize the nation’s nuclear waste management strategy.

When the cans were moved to L Area more than a decade ago, three of them had ruptured due to excessive fuel corrosion, causing high cesium-137 contamination inside the sealed, oversized cans, the report said, and uranium fuel in one can was so corroded that it left 36 kilos of oxide sludge at the bottom.

Because of its condition, the material was earmarked in 2000 for disposal at the site’s H Canyon facility, “but this has yet to occur,” the board wrote.

“The staff is concerned that DOE may continue to store fuel, some with through-clad breaches, indefinitely at L-Basin,” the board said. “The current condition of many of these items is unknown since DOE has not inspected them since they were packaged decades ago.”

In recent months, the Energy Department announced plans to scale back H Canyon operations and place the facility in “standby mode” for undisclosed future missions.

Because H Canyon is the nation’s sole remaining facility where certain types of spent fuels can be processed, critics of the decision fear the growing inventory of spent fuel sent to SRS could stay there longer than anticipated, or permanently, if no final disposition plan can be established.

During a recent presentation before the SRS Citzens Advisory Board, Pat McGuire, the site’s assistant manager for nuclear material stabilization, said a new study by Savannah River National Laboratory concluded that spent fuel stockpiled at the site could be safely stored for 50 additional years with proper maintenance and management.

It was unclear whether the sodium reactor material, which represents a small fraction of the spent fuel inventory, was part of that study.

The rest of the spent fuel is from foreign and domestic research reactors and contains highly enriched uranium—a critical ingredient for nuclear weapons.

It has been arriving at SRS since 1996 as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which will continue through 2019.

In addition to the current inventory, an additional 4,884 assemblies have already identified for shipment to South Carolina.

The initial plan for all that material was to use a “melt and dilute” disposal technique that was put on hold due to high costs. The backup plan involved sending it for processing at H Canyon.

Site officials have not yet responded to the board’s observations on the sodium reactor fuel.

Reach Rob Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.


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