Pending upgrades to the U.S. Energy Department's Defense Waste Processing Facility will almost double the volume of nuclear material processed each year, beginning in 2012.
The plant at Savannah River Site uses a process called vitrification to convert liquid radioactive wastes into a solid glass form suitable for long-term storage and permanent disposal. The glass is then encased in steel canisters.
During the facility's 10-year history, annual production has averaged 215 canisters. By 2012, the goal will be to increase annual production to 400 canisters per year to meet a goal of closing 22 of the site's remaining 49 liquid waste tanks within eight years.
Steve Wilkerson, waste treatment manager for Savannah River Remediation -- the site's liquid waste contractor -- said the upgrades are essential if the closure objectives are to be met on time. "We have more work to do to accomplish that goal," he said in a statement on Thursday.
The improvements involve two major phases, he said.
The first step, to be completed this year, includes retrofitting the facility's giant "melter," a 65-ton pot, with a bubbler mixing system that will increase production to 325 canisters per year.
The second step involves upgrading the melter feed preparation capacity, which will happen in 2011 and 2012.
Rick Kelley, a spokesman for Savannah River Remediation, said the improvements will increase efficiency but will not create jobs. The cost of the project -- about $33.2 million -- was built into the company's $3.3 billion, six-year contract to manage the site's liquid waste program.
As of April 9, the facility had poured 165 canisters and remains ahead of schedule.
Originally, there were 51 underground tanks at the site's H and F areas. Two were closed in the 1990s, and the remaining tanks contain 36 million gallons of decaying waste left behind by decades of Cold War nuclear weapons production. Twelve tanks are leaking, but the areas are contained to prevent material from entering the environment.
About 2,900 canisters processed during the past decade remain in storage at SRS. Some of the material was earmarked for permanent burial in Nevada's Yucca Mountain repository -- a project that has since been scrapped by the Energy Department.
Local leaders have protested the uncertain fate of waste stored at SRS and have lobbied for the resurrection of the Yucca Mountain project.