Just three days into his new job, Savannah River Remediation President Ken Rueter is keenly aware that major challenges lie ahead.
The company hired to clean up Savannah River Site’s Cold War nuclear waste faces fiscal 2014 with fewer federal dollars and a smaller workforce – but a mission whose demands remain the same.
“The scope of what we do will not be compromised,” said Rueter, during an interview Wednesday with The Augusta Chronicle. “But the way it’s delivered may be changed.”
The company’s radioactive waste responsibilities include underground storage tanks, saltstone processing and the Defense Waste Processing Facility.
Last week, 465 of its workers were laid off due to budget cuts. A workforce that numbered 2,200 a year ago will dwindle to about 1,700 by Oct. 1, when the government’s new fiscal year begins.
The ebb and flow of money and personnel, Rueter said, is all part of working for a government that must make hard choices with limited financial resources.
“We understand completely how important it is to be on board and responsive to that,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is a people component to that.”
Losing part of a properly trained workforce presents challenges, he said, because remobilizing specialized expertise can be expensive.
“In addition to maintaining a trained nuclear workforce, we are also managing an aging workforce,” he said.
Part of the solution is to continue efforts to work with the academic community to stimulate interest in nuclear careers.
The site’s radioactive waste program also faces mounting criticism from officials in South Carolina, who say cleanup efforts continue to lag farther behind schedule.
Last month, S.C. Department of Health & Environmental Control Director Catherine Templeton warned Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz that budget cuts will further slow progress at SRS and could trigger $154 million in fines for violating its agreements with state regulators.
The site’s high-level liquid waste, Templeton asserted, poses “the single largest environmental threat in South Carolina.”
As the contractor in charge of cleaning up such dangerous material, SRR’s focus must remain on properly and safely executing its mission, Rueter said.
“The federal government is the owner, and DHEC is the state level regulator and they have a relationship,” he said. “We don’t get into the middle of that.”
One of the company’s main priorities in the coming year, however, will be to seek out ways to increase efficiency without compromising the highest priorities: human health and the environment.
“There have been a number of things we have done there,” he said. “We’ve been improving the performance of technology and equipment, and looking for the low-dollar, high-return kinds of initiatives.”
A recent example, he added, was the milestone set in August at the Defense Waste Processing Facility, which mixes waste with glass in a process called vitrification and seals the material in steel canisters.
During the month, the facility filled 40 canisters – surpassing the previous record of 37 canisters produced in December 2011.
“That means a first-time nameplate performance has been achieved, so it’s monumental,” he said, adding that a 40-canister month had been an unfulfilled objective for more than a decade.
Rueter has held numerous positions in the nuclear industry and began his engineering career in the 1980s at SRS, where he was part of the Defense Waste Processing Facility.
Most recently, he was chief operating officer at URS-CH2M Oak Ridge LLC, which holds the cleanup contract at the Energy Department’s East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.