Originally created 05/12/00

Panel: SRS needs easy procedures



Savannah River Site officials should simplify procedures designed to prevent accidental chain reactions at the federal nuclear-weapons site, a federal panel recommended Thursday.

"Our fundamental observation of Savannah River was that they would be well served by streamlining some of their criticality-safety controls, to make it a little easier on the operators," said Jerry McKamy, nuclear criticality safety specialist for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Dr. McKamy headed a team that reviewed criticality-safety efforts at five Energy Department sites, including SRS, after one such accident Sept. 30 at a nuclear fuel processing plant in Tokaimura, Japan.

The event killed two plant workers and showered radioactive material on nearby areas.

Criticalities, or chain reactions, have the potential to spew massive amounts of radiation into the environment with devastating consequences.

Since the first criticality in 1953, there have been 22 worldwide and seven in the United States.

Dr. McKamy's team found that given safety measures in place, such accidents were unlikely at the Energy Department facilities reviewed, he said.

The review focused on sites that handled volatile, highly radioactive liquids such as FB-Line and high-level waste tank farms at SRS.

The review discounted the possibility of a criticality at the site's H-Area tank farm, Dr. McKamy said.

A federal review board warned otherwise in January, stating that the huge waste tanks were susceptible to criticalities because of their exposure to the elements.

"It was our team's conclusion that the number, type and depth of criticality controls were adequate to keep the possibility of criticality remote," Dr. McKamy said of the tank farm.

Overall, the site's safety efforts were well regarded by the reviewers, Dr. McKamy said.

"The field office at Savannah River is doing a very good job of oversight at the field level," he said. "That was definitely a positive attribute."

But reviewers recommended several changes in procedures across the Energy Department complex, including SRS. Criticality-safety engineers need to be closer to line workers at sites, Dr. McKamy said.

The department also must do a better job of recruiting and retaining criticality-safety specialists, Assistant Energy Secretary David Michaels said.

"The area of criticality safety is an area where people can do very well in the private sector," he said.

To keep such experts in federal service, the department will change some personnel policies, Dr. Michaels said. For example, criticality-safety experts soon will be eligible for promotions to higher pay grades than before.

Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409 or bhaddock@augustachronicle.com.