Savannah River Site has replaced and upgraded a 40-year-old system for separating and capturing helium-3, a byproduct of the site’s role in the manufacture of tritium for nuclear bombs.
The helium gas is used in radiation detectors operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to detect neutron activity from nuclear material.
The previous helium-3 recovery system had been operating for more than four decades and was no longer cost effective to maintain. The age of the equipment, potential for contaminants, and the need to relocate the recovery process out of the previous Cold War-era facility, drove the requirement to install an upgraded system in a new location at the site.
According to a summary of the project from Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the site’s managing contractor, shop fabrication activities for the new system began in November 2010 and field activities began in April 2011.
Construction included a glovebox to house approximately 1,200 feet of stainless steel piping connected by approximately 1,300 welds, four vacuum pumps, three compressors, two zeolite beds and 20 instruments. The new sytem will cost about $28 million less in annual operating costs, the company said.
“The helium-3 recovery system upgrade project and others like it are critical for the SRS tritium operation to continue providing safe, secure, reliable and cost-effective solutions to meet national needs,” said SRS Office Manager Doug Dearolph.
The site’s tritium program falls under the National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the U.S. Energy Department responsible for nuclear weapons and related materials.