Originally created 05/30/99

Disposal mission brings plutonium full circle



In a few years, Savannah River Site workers will begin disposing of the plutonium they once created.

After decades of producing the radioactive element for the nation's Cold War nuclear-weapons stockpile, the site will begin diminishing that stock. About 55 tons of plutonium will be encased within highly radioactive glass for burial or converted into fuel for commercial nuclear reactors.

U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced in December that SRS would complete the work, using at least two new plutonium-processing plants proposed for the site.

The site's history of handling plutonium, one of the most toxic materials known to man, helped it receive the new plants, some supporters said.

``It was invaluable,'' said Ambrose Schwallie, president of Westinghouse Savannah River Co. Westinghouse operates SRS under contract from the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the site.

``When you look at this last pit-disassembly mission, there's no question in my mind that our expertise and experience in plutonium handling was invaluable to our getting that mission.''

That handling began in the 1950s, when the site's five nuclear reactors began producing plutonium. It continues today in the site's ``F-Canyon'' reprocessing facility, a decade after the last of those reactors shut down.

That reactor, called ``K-Reactor,'' will play a role in the site's work to dispose of plutonium. In the room where a reactor once produced the element, workers are preparing to store it when it returns from various Energy Department sites across the country.

Even as the nation prepares to dispose of plutonium, the site's F-Canyon continues to refine it. The huge facility, which began operating in 1954, reprocesses the element, separating it from other materials into which it is blended and bonded.

Once, those materials were ``targets,'' bombarded with neutrons in the site's reactors to produce plutonium. Now, the materials are scrap metals, residues and other wastes produced during Energy Department activities. Canyon workers remove plutonium from the wastes just to make it safer, said Carol Johnson, Westinghouse's facility manager for the canyon.

``The Energy Department has identified certain materials that it considers not to be in the most ideal form,'' she said. Enough of the materials exist, Energy Department officials estimate, to keep the canyons operating through at least 2005.

The plant, staffed by 400 people, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Ms. Johnson said. Because of the danger of the work, operators oversee the canyon's operations from a long, narrow control room atop the facility. Work within the canyon's radioactive areas is performed using remote-controlled cranes, with remote cameras acting as the crane operators' eyes.

Years of such work have developed a sense of ``elegant simplicity'' among SRS workers, spurring them to create innovative ways to work with plutonium as safely as possible, Mr. Schwallie said. At the site's Savannah River Technology Center, Steve Tibrea demonstrates one such method, the site's patented ``bagless transfer'' technology.

The method produces fewer polluted materials than older packaging methods, said Mr. Tibrea, manager of Westinghouse's Remote and Specialty Equipment Systems division.

Although those methods used plastic seals that reacted with plutonium, bagless transfer places ceramic plutonium pucks into stainless-steel canisters. The canisters are welded shut, then stacked end-to-end into long steel magazines. In turn, the magazines are placed into huge stainless-steel containers.

At the site's Defense Waste Processing Facility, workers will pour liquid waste from other SRS activities into the containers, surrounding the plutonium within. The waste is superheated into a highly radioactive glass, ensuring that would-be thieves cannot retrieve the plutonium without exposing themselves to deadly doses of radiation.

The price of such innovations, though, is stored in 49 massive waste tanks near the canyons, said Brian Costner, a consultant who once headed a SRS watchdog group. In those tanks are thousands of gallons of highly radioactive liquid waste left behind by canyon operations.

``Plutonium operations at SRS are responsible for the largest amounts and the most dangerous forms of contamination,'' said Mr. Costner, who now lives in Seattle. ``The reprocessing operations at the site generated tens of millions of gallons of radioactive liquid waste.

``That waste will pose a risk to local ecosystems and future generations for essentially longer than we can think about.''

Brandon Haddock covers energy issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.