A federal oversight panel will meet in Augusta this month to explore safety issues associated with extended storage of nuclear materials at Savannah River Site.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, created by Congress to help protect public health and worker safety at nuclear weapons facilities, also will solicit testimony about the impacts of terminating waste processing at the site's H-Canyon.
"This hearing concerns safety matters and other information related to public health and safety, including that of the workers, at the Savannah River Site, particularly with respect to radioactive liquid waste processing, emergency preparedness, and nuclear materials disposition," according to a notice prepared by the board.
The 310-square-mile complex was used for decades to manufacture nuclear weapons materials. Today, much of its mission involves cleanup of the waste generated by those earlier processes.
In recent months, the site has been rocked by news of pending layoffs, budget cuts and the possible scaling back of activities at H-Canyon, a 403,000-square-foot chemical separations plant built in the 1950s to recover uranium and plutonium for defense programs.
Today, H-Canyon is the nation's sole remaining facility at which certain types of plutonium, highly enriched uranium and aluminum-clad spent nuclear fuels can be processed for disposal.
The Department of Energy announced plans earlier this year to place the facility in "minimum inventory and staffing condition," which could include halting the flow of nuclear materials sent there for processing.
The move also leaves the fate of the facility's 800 jobs in question.
"The board is concerned about how DOE will dispose of nuclear materials in light of the potential termination of chemical processing at H-Canyon," the meeting notice said, adding that there are also other "uncertainties" in new disposition plans for nuclear materials.
The board has voiced concerns to Energy Secretary Steven Chu that halting H-Canyon activities could create "significant unintended safety consequences" by "orphaning unprocessed materials" that would then be kept indefinitely at Savannah River Site.
In a Feb. 28 letter to Chu, DNFSB chairman Peter Winokur estimated there are 40,000 items awaiting processing at H-Canyon that would be placed in limbo if the facility was closed.
"A similar number of items do not have established disposition paths," Winokur said . "For some of these items, the H-Canyon facility is the only disposition path certain to be viable."