Safety board says Savannah River Site building has plutonium and fire dangers

A federal oversight panel wants the U.S. Department of Energy to address fire hazards and plutonium contamination in a 1950s-era building at Savannah River Site.

“Due to the potential dose consequences to collocated workers and the public, it is unacceptable for the residual contamination within Building 235-F to continue to remain unaddressed,” wrote Peter Winokur, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board chairman, in a recent letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Over the past half-century, Building 235-F served various purposes related to nuclear weapons, including plutonium storage and shipping.

Although such materials are no longer kept there, residual contamination and inadequate fire protection could make the site more dangerous, the board said.

“The remaining residual contamination is the principal hazard posed by Building 235-F and includes a significant quantity of plutonium-238,” the 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 also vulnerable to fires because it lacks proper fire barriers and does not have adequate fire detection and suppression systems.

“While DOE does not conduct any operations within Building 235-F, fires could start inside the building if energized electrical equipment or wiring failed or was damaged during a seismic or other natural hazard event,” the recommendation said.

“Electrical sparks or heat from electrical equipment could ignite adjacent combustible material,” it continued.

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 nuclear
facilities.

In operation since October 1989, the board reviews and evaluates the content and implementation of health and safety standards and other requirements related to the design, construction, operation, and decommissioning of the Department’s defense nuclear facilities.

Read the complete recommendation

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