DOE responds to fears of potential disasters at Savannah River Site

Decommissioned C-Reactor stands as a testament to the dangerous nuclear materials created by, stored on and still processed by the Savannah River Site. Fears were recently irradiated by the tunnel collapse at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington.

Last week’s tunnel collapse at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state has stoked fears of similar events at Savannah River Site that could result in a radiation release.


Some concerned residents voiced concerns about aging facilities and potentially deadly radiation releases from the defense nuclear facility, owned by the Department of Energy. The department, though, says there are plans in place to protect workers and nearby communities if there’s a nuclear disaster at SRS.

Construction on-site began in 1950 and production of plutonium began in reactors in 1953; all reactors were online within five years of construction beginning. While the reactors might have been powered down, some facilities from the early days of the Cold War are still in operation.

“Besides a tank explosion or major tank leak at SRS, a significant accident at the 61-year old H-Canyon – while processing plutonium or spent fuel – worries me the most,” said Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch.

A tank explosion is a potential hazard in the high-level liquid waste tanks in H and F areas. The 43 carbon steel tanks currently store and manage about 35 million gallons of waste. At the peak of need, 51 tanks were in operation, but eight have been emptied, cleaned and filled with a special concrete to prevent collapse and discourage tampering.

Hydrogen buildup is also a potential concern, although monitors are in place. Processes in the tank and mistakes – such as the one reported in the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) report from March 18, 2016 – indicate hydrogen buildup is a possible concern. Hydrogen can be explosive in particular concentrations.

Clements noted another concern was the H-Canyon facility itself. H-Canyon is the nation’s only full-scale chemical separations facility. The canyon receives fuel rods and other materials, primarily spent fuel from research reactors, and processes it through a complex chemical transformation to recover materials like uranium, depending on the configuration of the equipment.

One side of the canyon is called “warm” and the other “hot.” All of the work on the “hot” side must be done remotely, and people have not been allowed inside since operations began to try to ensure worker safety.

Another concern Clements mentioned is a tunnel, not unlike the collapsed tunnel at Hanford. He said the H-Canyon exhaust tunnel is aging and degraded.

“If it were to collapse during facility operation, there could be a release of radiation to the environment,” Clements said.

A number of DNFSB reports also mentioned concerns found in prior tunnel inspections. That prompted a letter from the safety board to Monica Regalbuto, the DOE assistant secretary for Environmental Management, in late 2015.

The letter said, “The Defense Nuclear facilities Safety Board is concerned that due to structural degradation, the H-Canyon Exhaust Tunnel at Savannah River Site may not be able to perform its important safety class function during and following a design basis earthquake. The Department of Energy directed Savannah River Nuclear Solutions to gather additional information to address concerns with the structural integrity of H-Canyon Exhaust Tunnel.”

Seismic activity isn’t common or strong in the area, but a small quake just after the February 2014 ice storm demonstrates the possibility.

The Department of Energy said it takes every conceivable measure to prevent accidents and protect workers and communities from danger.

“The Savannah River Site ensures its workers, nuclear facilities and the public are protected via a robust structural integrity program. This program is designed around regulatory requirements, best industry standards, and decades of experience and demonstrated safe operations,” said Monte Volk, an Energy Department spokesman.

“It starts by identifying and analyzing facilities with hazardous materials/conditions that could pose a threat to the workers, the public and the environment, and incorporates multiple levels of controls,” he said.

In the statement released by the DOE, it said inaccessible areas like H-Canyon’s “hot” side have work completed via robotics controlled from outside the dangerous area. He said the high-level waste tanks are monitored for water levels, chemical consistency and temperature to minimize corrosion, which could lead to a leak.

In case of one of those emergencies, though, threats exist to communities nearby, especially Snelling, Jackson and New Ellenton just outside the boundaries in South Carolina, and Shell Bluff, Ga., just across the Savannah River.

“SRS takes a proactive approach toward emergency preparedness using safety modeling to develop worst-case scenario drills. We rely on local media, our website and social media to release information as quickly as possible,” Volk said.

He recognized a number of local agencies that would assist residents in case of emergency, including the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, and state and county emergency operations centers. A map with safety information and evacuation instructions is created for the public every year and mailed to households within the emergency planning zones around the site.

“The Savannah River Site is a unique Department of Energy industrial complex in that it has ongoing cleanup efforts, but it is also responsible for processing and storing nuclear materials in support of national defense,” Volk said. “The site develops and deploys technologies to improve the environment, and treat nuclear and hazardous wastes left from the Cold War.”


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