Emergency response drills will be held in May and June as part of an ongoing response to concerns over plutonium hazards in an empty Savannah River Site building.
Over the past 50 years, Building 235-F has served various purposes related to nuclear weapons, including plutonium storage and shipping.
Though such materials are no longer kept there, residual contamination and inadequate fire protection make the site more dangerous, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board noted in May 2012, when its chairman, Peter Winokur, presented the issue directly to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
“The remaining residual contamination is the principal hazard posed by Building 235-F and includes a significant quantity of plutonium-238,” the oversight board wrote, adding that the material is a fine powder “that is in a highly dispersible form, which increases the potential dose consequences associated with a radiological release.”
The building, in the site’s F Area, is vulnerable to fires because it lacks proper fire barriers and does not have adequate fire-detection and -suppression systems, the safety board said.
Since that recommendation was made, U.S. Energy Department officials have begun addressing some of the board’s concerns, including the removal of trash and a halt to the use of the facility as a storage site.
The safety drills on May 15 and June 12 will help maintain and test the ability of emergency personnel assigned to the area, and the first drill will involve other facilities, including the mixed oxide fuel facility, or MOX plant, under construction at the site.
Eventually, the building will require cleanup and some sort of disposition, but budget concerns and the recent sequestration edict have slowed progress on some cleanup plans.
The federally imposed sequestration cuts caused a reduction of work schedules – from 40 hours per week to 32 hours – for approximately 2,600 employees of Savannah River Site’s managing contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions. The reduced hours will last at least through May.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is an independent organization that provides recommendations and advice to the president and the secretary of energy regarding public health and safety issues at DOE defense