Agencies at SRS are reaching the summit of nuclear waste cleanup

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On July 1, 2009, a new era began at Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C. That’s when Savannah River Remediation began operations
as the SRS liquid waste contractor for the U.S. Department of
Energy.


Does that sound exciting? It should. It’s quite a mountain to climb, and the summit is still off in the distance.

WHILE OUR WORK may not
engender much household discussion, the work being performed by our 1,700 employees has turned our corner of the world into one of the premier nuclear cleanup sites of any country. Our workers are the best in the world at what they do.

The cleanup work at SRS involves taking liquid radioactive waste, treating it, stabilizing it, disposing of it and operationally closing waste tanks that once held the waste. What I have described in one sentence is a complex, hazardous task that takes many years to perform.

This waste is borne of the Cold War. It is the remnant of America’s struggle and triumph, and it is a vestige that must be safely and efficiently handled to close the nuclear cycle.

That work is being performed by URS Corp.-led SRR. URS is joined by a team of major national corporations that comprises SRR – Bechtel National; CH2M HILL; and Babcock and Wilcox; along with critical subcontractors AREVA, Energy Solutions and URS Professional Solutions. These companies give SRR the well-rounded ability to meet the goals of the DOE.

SRS is the only DOE site in the nation that is processing the two types of stored waste: a radioactive sludge that is destined for a federal repository; and a decontaminated saltlike waste that is held on site after treatment. Both types of waste are immobilized – converted from a liquid to a solid. The sludge becomes a glass; the salt is transformed into a concrete.

THAT’S IMPRESSIVE technology by itself. But there’s more.

Once our company safely disposes of the waste, we work on actually closing waste tanks, ultimately filling them with a cementlike grout, stabilizing them for centuries.

There have been six of 51 waste tanks closed at SRS – two in 1997 under a legacy company to SRR, and since 2009, SRR has closed four tanks. There also are two more waste tanks on the schedule to close soon.

To clarify the size and scope of this job: These million-gallon waste tanks are so large you could put a high-school basketball court inside one.

What’s the big deal about our work? The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control sums it up: “This waste is the single largest environmental risk in South Carolina.” In other words, you want us to safely dispose of the waste and close the waste tanks as soon as we can.

As you can tell, it is quite the mountain to scale.

I enjoy mountaineering. I climb to many peaks as a personal quest. Reaching a summit is an incredible experience. What you see is breathtaking; the thrill escapes words.

I have found that comparing our work to scaling a mountain is appropriate. You start and end with safety; you do the right things along the way; and you continue to conduct your work with excellence and agility.

OUR EMPLOYEES are making outstanding progress, but about 37 million gallons of waste still inside our waste tanks need to be dispositioned, and, ultimately, the rest of the tanks closed. It is a long, arduous process. But SRR employees prove every day they are up to the task.

Our work is all about the safety of the workers, the public, the environment and the Savannah River. And it puts a final exclamation point on the Cold War, where the legacy waste began.

This is one climb that’s really worth the view.

(The writer is the president and project manager of Savannah River Remediation.)

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