When visitors come to Savannah River Site, they typically get a bus tour followed by a trip inside a single SRS plant. Often, that plant is the Defense Waste Processing Facility.
It is not coincidence. The 7-year-old plant is the federal nuclear-weapons site's crown jewel.
In the U.S. Department of Energy complex, the plant is one of only two capable of a peculiar alchemy -- the ability to vitrify dangerously radioactive liquid waste, turning it into a safer, more stable glass.
In recent years, the plant has worked its magic well. The facility has met or exceeded production goals, without the mishaps that have plagued some older SRS plants.
"It is kind of our flagship environmental-management operation," said Carl Everatt, the Energy Department's manager of high-level waste operations at SRS.
The plant recently celebrated another milestone. The device that is the crux of the facility's operation, its "melter," has lasted nearly seven years, five beyond the life its designers first expected.
Site executives attribute much of the melter's longevity to a single innovation they call a "pour-spout insert." The stainless-steel tube, through which molten glass flows, is designed to be relatively inexpensive and replaceable, officials said.
The insert acts as a shield between the glass and the melter, officials said. When the insert deteriorates, officials simply install a new one.
Devices such as the insert protect the plant's major components from decay. That lengthens the plant's life span while lowering its operating costs, site officials said.
"That's proven to just be extremely useful in extending life," said Bill Poulson, a vice president in charge of the plant for SRS contractor Westinghouse Savannah River Co.
"With these relatively simple pour spouts, you can keep these things running like it's new," he said. "The neat part of it is you've attacked the cost issue and you're keeping the product up, which is the real benefit to the people of this country and state."
The plant's triumphs have overshadowed its troubled early history. Originally scheduled to open in 1989 at a cost of $970 million, the plant didn't begin treating radioactive waste until 1997. By then, its price tag had ballooned to $1.3 billion.
Now, even some nuclear activists credit the Energy Department for the plant, although they fault its cost overruns and its inability to handle much of the site's liquid waste alone.
The plant cannot treat a highly radioactive "salt solution" at SRS without the assistance of a sister plant, noted Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
That sister plant, the In-Tank Precipitation Facility, was a $500 million failure; SRS scientists are researching new treatment methods for a replacement plant.
Despite that setback, the Defense Waste Processing Facility is treating much of the site's waste, an accomplishment that should not go unrecognized, Dr. Makhijani said.
"It is a very important success," he said. "Even though it is late and over budget, I don't want to minimize the importance of locking away such a large portion of the radioactivity in the nuclear-weapons complex."
The plant's success is because its designers patterned it after other SRS plants, notably the site's two large reprocessing "canyons," Dr. Makhijani said.
"They were able to marry that technology with vitrification, which is also a reasonably well-known technology," he said. "If there is one positive lesson to be learned, it is that they must pay attention to the technical skills that they have learned and apply them."
For their part, SRS officials credit much of the plant's success to its young age.
The facility has built-in safeguards and technology that weren't available when the site's older plants were built, site officials said. In addition, site officials worked to lay a strong foundation for the plant's operations during its early years, SRS officials said.
"There were not bad habits to break," Mr. Everatt said. "We were able to start it out on the right path, and we try to maintain it that way."
But the failure of the In-Tank plant might yet cause trouble for the Defense Waste Processing Facility.
Sometime during the next decade, the plant will treat the last batch of radioactive "sludge" at SRS. If the In-Tank plant's replacement isn't operating when the sludge runs out, the Defense Waste Processing Facility might be forced to close.
Westinghouse executives estimate that at current rates, the site's sludge will run out in 2010, said Dean Campbell, a company spokesman. That is the same year the In-Tank plant's replacement is scheduled to open, he said.
That slender time frame could widen if federal budgets continue to tighten, Mr. Campbell said.
"A lot of this is budget-dependent," he said. "If the budgets are reduced in that area, we won't have as high a production."
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.