Work at SRS secures its survival

In a nation whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly shrinking, bringing drastic changes and job cuts to some areas, Savannah River Site's role in tritium production will remain largely the same.

"We already have what we're going to get, which is the tritium facilities," said Jim Giusti, an Energy Department external affairs spokesman at SRS. "There won't be a lot of really visible differences, but we will see R&D (research and development) now at Los Alamos moved to Savannah River National Laboratory."

Although much activity at SRS involves cleanup programs, the site still plays an essential role in weapons production.

Every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, from submarines to land-based silos to strategic bombers, has one thing in common: its reservoir of tritium -- the hydrogen gas that increases its explosive power -- is maintained and recharged at SRS.

"The way it works is, we have metal reservoir, a container specially designed for whatever weapon it goes to, and we get that from the Department of Defense," Mr. Giusti said. "We take out the hydrogen gas (tritium), install new tritium and send it back."

The tritium in weapons kept ready for deployment has a 12.5-year half-life.

"As it sits in that metal container, it changes, and there are limits on how much has to be there," he said.

The aging reservoirs are shipped in secure containers to and from Augusta Regional Airport under high security. In the site's long history, the safety record of such shipments is 100 percent.

"It is not a large operation, but it is a very important one," Mr. Giusti said. "We are the source for tritium in the U.S."

Although the National Nuclear Security Administration's "complex transformation" plan includes reductions and cuts in many areas, small expansions associated with tritium programs are possible at SRS, he said.

"It isn't something we think of as a major change in our work force," Mr. Giusti said. "We're not impacted much as opposed to other sites, which would have facilities going through major work force reductions."

Why the difference? SRS' tritium facilities are mostly newer projects that are already modernized for today's nuclear weapons programs.

"We will have to go through some upgrades, but it's nothing as extensive as a new mission," Mr. Giusti said. "We've also moved a lot of our unclassified work to the Hydrogen Research Center in Aiken."

Future opportunities at SRS include many non-weapons programs.

"Savannah River National Laboratory is now moving into hydrogen technology in general," Mr. Giusti said. "A lot of things we do as far as nuclear weapons can be applied, in an unclassified way, to solving energy problems -- in particular, hydrogen storage."

Such non-weapons programs are expected to become more important as nuclear arsenals continue to shrink.

According to the Energy Department, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile has been reduced by 50 percent since 2001, making it the smallest since the Eisenhower administration. Last December, President Bush directed the stockpile be reduced an additional 15 percent in coming years.

Tom Clements, the Southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for the Friends of the Earth environmental group, noted that SRS also plays a role in the disposal of plutonium from decommissioned nuclear bombs.

DOE has chosen SRS as the location for its plutonium pit disassembly and conversion and mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facilities. These missions convert excess weapons-usable plutonium to a form that can be used in commercial power reactors.

"So if the MOX program ever gets going, those plutonium pits eventually would be brought and temporarily stored at SRS before being processed into MOX," he said.

Future funding at SRS, he added, is likely to focus on cleanup activities associated with its decades of nuclear activities.

"Under complex transformation, cleanup will remain king," he predicted.

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

'COMPLEX TRANSFORMATION' PLAN

- The National Nuclear Security Administration is the arm of the Energy Department that manages, maintains and provides security for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal.

- The "nuclear weapons complex" addresses eight major facilities that play essential roles in the nuclear weapons program: Savannah River Site (South Carolina), Los Alamos National Laboratory (New Mexico), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (California), Sandia National Laboratories (New Mexico and California), Pantex Plant (Texas), Y-12 National Security Complex (Tennessee), Kansas City Plant (Missouri) and Nevada Test Site (Nevada).

- "Complex transformation" is the Energy Department's broad consolidation program designed to limit plutonium and weapons-grade uranium to fewer, more secure sites, while closing or consolidating obsolete Cold War facilities in efforts to improve efficiency and safety and lower costs.

- The current plan would close more than 600 buildings and require 20 percent to 30 percent fewer workers involved in nuclear weapons nationwide, but SRS' existing role in tritium production will remain intact and could possibly expand.

- SRS is the nation's sole source of tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen gas that is an essential component of nuclear bombs, but which has a 12.5-year half-life and must be replaced.

- SRS also recharges tritium reservoirs from nuclear weapons and returns them to Department of Defense facilities.

READ IT ONLINE

NNSA Complex Transformation Plan: complex_transformation.htm

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: www.nnsa.energy.gov/defense_programs