Savannah River Site picks team for plutonium cleanup effort



Savannah River Site has selected a handpicked “Dream Team” to take on what it calls one of its riskier environmental cleanup activities.

The 18-member crew will assist in cleanup of the inactive Plutonium Fuel Form facility. This project is entering its second year.

The crew was chosen primarily for their experience in handling radioactive materials, most of which came during the SRS transuranic waste campaign, according to the site. TRU waste typically consists of protective clothing, tools, rags, equipment and miscellaneous items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium.

The team has been able to remove and control fixed combustibles, upgrade the fire detection system and de-energize unneeded electrical circuits. It is also draining and cleaning shield cell windows after their partial disassembly, installing lighting and mechanically isolating the cells to aid removal of materials from the cells and support material characterization, the site stated in a news release.

“We knew that we would be facing a lot of unknown challenges, and we needed a team who could handle them,” said Jeff Hasty, a risk reduction manager. “In my 29 years of experience, this is the only handpicked crew I have seen.”

The Plutonium Fuel Form facility was used to make spheres and pellets out of plutonium that served as the heat source in radiolytic thermal generators used to electrically power deep space missions. The work left behind about 1,500 grams of plutonium. In its release, SRS notes the challenges in clean-up because of tight spaces with limited accessibility and very fine plutonium particulate dust that is easily disturbed. The biggest health threat is from inhalation, so workers must work carefully to not stir up the dust, according to the release.

“Some of us were asked if we would come to this project after TRU was over,” said Ronnie Farmer, a risk reduction first fine manager. “We said yes, but only on one condition: you let us get the people who we want for this job. We were looking for people with the right temperament and experience, and upper management let us pick the people we needed to do this job correctly and safely.”

Inside the facility are nine cells of thick concrete walls with shielded windows. In these cells, employees worked with plutonium using remote manipulators from outside the cell. Material entered the facility in cell one, then traveled through the other cells to be
made into spheres and pellets.

“If you sit back and watch them, they all know each other’s job and work together so well, it is sometimes hard to tell who is who,” said Hasty. “They are all willing to pitch in for the job.”

The cleanup mission is estimated to be completed by 2021. Any plutonium dust that is removed, along with any contaminated equipment, will be safely packaged and stored for eventual shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, which stopped taking shipments after an underground truck caught fire in 2014.

“The fact is that the combination of experience, respect, management support, humor and camaraderie is what makes this team great,” Hasty said.

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