Transuranic waste: flotsam and jetsam of the nuclear age

A truck leaves Savannah River Site hauling a specially designed shipping container built to move radioactive waste to New Mexico.

Savannah River Site’s final American Recovery & Reinvestment Act project is winding down this year with the completion of an extended effort to send problematic Cold War nuclear waste to New Mexico.


The site received more than $1.6 billion in stimulus funding that accelerated a host of cleanup projects that otherwise might have languished for years before money became available to complete them.

Defunct reactors were decommissioned and sealed and dozens of obsolete Cold War-era buildings were razed — all part of a plan to consolidate the site’s operations into a much smaller area.

Although most projects ended in October 2011 as funding expired, the lone exception involved a contract to pack and ship 5,000 cubic meters of legacy transuranic waste to the government’s underground repository near Carlsbad, N.M.

That program was slowed by the deployment of a new shipping container design and its deadline was extended.

As of this week, about 3,100 cubic yards of the remaining material has been sent to New Mexico and the remaining inventory has been sorted and packed for shipments that will continue throuhg 2013 until all the waste has left South Carolina.

Transuranic waste, or “TRU,” is a widely varied form of low-level waste that includes everything from tools, labcoats, debris and other items contaminated with radiation during the site’s half-century of production related to the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

The material, stored in drums kept in secure concrete culverts, had to be analyzed, opened and sorted — and then repackaged for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for permanent burial.

According to the site contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, workers have repackaged enough contaminated wastes to fill two Olympic sized swimming pools since the Recovery Act portion of the project began in 2009.

Since 1999, when the New Mexico site first became operational and started accepting SRS material, a total of 1,400 shipments of TRU wasate — totaling 16,200 cubic meters – have been exported from South Carolina.

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Five largest Recovery Act contracts at SRS:

1. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions: $720,201,615 for management of nuclear and hazardous waste and site cleanup, disposing of 5,000 cubic meters of transuranic nuclear waste, consolidation and closure of waste storage facilities, waste disposition, disposition of 16,000 drums of depleted uranium oxide and cleanup/disposal of waste generated by the cleanup projects.

2. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions: $416,711,472 for decommissioning P-Reactor and R-Reactor, remediation of six miles of underground lines, 220 acres of contaminated soil, C-Reactor Area Discharge Canal, C Reactor Groundwater, and C Area waste sites. Also included demolition of PAR (P and R Area) Pond facilities.

3. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions: $235,738,870 for various cleanup and demolition projects involving contaminated soil and groundwater and removal of plutonium-238. Decommission and clean up other areas including the heavy water components test reactor, incineration facility, cooling towers, power houses and various old buildings.

4. Savannah River Remediation: $199,851,822 for liquid waste program infrastructure, waste tank closure, and radioactive sludge and salt disposition. This work accelerates refurbishment of the existing liquid waste infrastructure and provides new infrastructure to increase reliability for transfer and treatment of radioactive liquid waste.

5. Savannah River Nuclear Solutions: $23,530,069 for various projects in M and D areas, including soil removal, concrete removal, demolition of old buildings and follow-up environmental monitoring.

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