Savannah River Site facility shuts down to replace major component

After nearly 14 years, a key piece of equipment in Savannah River Site’s Defense Waste Processing Facility experienced an irreparable mechanical failure and will be taken off-line.

 

The melter, known as Melter 2, experienced a heater failure Wednesday and operations were halted at the facility. Melter 2 was the second melter installed in DWPF.

The melter is at the core of the facility’s mission to turn high-level radioactive waste into glass. It began operating in 2003 and had an original life-expectancy of about six years. The first melter began radioactive operations in 1996 and only survived six years in service.

According to the Department of Energy, a replacement melter is kept in storage in case the one in operation fails. Due to the long life of Melter 2, the new equipment has been ready for several years.

Installation work for Melter 3 is scheduled to begin soon and the Energy Department expects the replacement to take approximately six months. The DWPF operations will be on-hold until the new component is in place.

According to the DOE, there are no risks to the workers, the public or the environment during the replacement process.

DWPF processes nuclear waste and turns it into glass so it can be contained and stored in large, stainless steel canisters. Those canisters are eventually for a national defense nuclear waste repository, but since the shuttering of Yucca Mountain, a repository does not exist.

Currently the canisters are stacked in underground vaults engineered to handle extreme weather and earthquakes. At the end of its mission, the DWPF is expected to pour over 8,100 total canisters. So far, more than 4,100 canisters have been poured and Melter 2 was responsible for over 2,800. The glass in all of the canisters to date weighs more than 16 million pounds.

According to information released by the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the facility, several adaptations were made to Melter 2 to improve performance. Engineers improved the melter to keep the glass from sticking or eroding the spout and made changes to the heating elements to ensure more efficiency.

According to a DOE-SRS spokesperson, the melter is placed into a steel storage box and transported to an underground, concrete lined storage area that was designed specifically for the melters.

This interim disposal area, located near DWPF, has a concrete top that keeps workers safe from any residual radiation, and the area is monitored.

The melters will eventually be sent to the same nuclear repository as the canisters they filled, but the Energy Department timeline for construction of that facility doesn’t expect operations to begin for at least the next 20 years.

Thomas Gardiner can be reached at (706) 823-3339 or at thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com.

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