Originally created 11/30/00

Mission turnaround



NEW ELLENTON - The currents of history were in full flood in the 1990s, and Savannah River Site - indeed, the entire nuclear power industry - got caught in the tide.

The end of the Cold War stopped cold a push to build up the country's nuclear weapons stockpile, a push that was just gaining momentum as the Berlin Wall came down. With the disarmament treaties that made diplomatic relations with Eastern Bloc powers possible came new challenges: what to do with the stockpile, and where to find the expertise to ensure the former Soviet Union attended to their weapons cache.

The thaw between East and West forced SRS to abandon its original mandate and methods and create new uses for the facility and its core staff of nuclear science masters. Hardest hit in the course of the change were the rank and file at the site. After the push to build up reversed, thousands of SRS employees were left out in the cold during the 1990s.

With a leaner workforce, a more open workplace culture, and lots of obsolete space and equipment, Westinghouse Savannah River Co. turned its attention to nuclear waste disposal, overseeing the dismantling of stockpiles of other proven and would-be world powers, and taking the site's technological innovations into the public domain.

SRS was created in response to the Cold War threat of a nuclear arms buildup by the Soviet Union. That threat effectively vanished in November 1990 when the Conventional Forces in Europe Agreement was drafted. The agreement was signed at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe on Dec. 25, 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The conference came hard on the heels of Westinghouse's anniversary of becoming the site's contractor in 1989, during which time the company had defined the mission of SRS in terms of building up the nation's tritium reserves. The concern was that the tritium in existing nuclear weapons would soon begin to decay - tritium's half-life is about 12 years - and SRS is the country's only nuclear facility equipped to produce more. The end of the Cold War and the terms of the two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties forced the company into a course correction.

"We were in a rapid acceleration to try to get a production capability in place that assures enough tritium to meet the defense needs of the country, and then the defense needs of the country were going to change," said Jack Hermann, then director of public relations for Westinghouse. Mr. Hermann is now director of public and strategic communication for Washington Group International.

"Then the debate was, `What do we need? What don't we need?'

"Because the stockpile was going from tens of thousands of weapons down to thousands or hundreds of weapons, if you assume the decay of tritium, we didn't need a new tritium source. We could pirate and scavenge off what was coming out of stockpiles to keep the stuff on hand."

The decline of the stockpile meant much of SRS' facilities - and its personnel - were obsolete, and the plant went into a reduction program of its own. Between 1993 and 1999, SRS' employee population went from 23,700 to 13,854. Westinghouse offered several waves of early retirement packages, instituted voluntary separation programs and offered job retraining to make the downsizing less traumatic, but the fact remained that the SRS populace - itself a large portion of the area's population - underwent a major upheaval.

"It took a lot of work and cooperation, not only with the community and the employees but also with our congressional delegations. That was most encouraging; we had less of the trauma that you sometimes have when you're trying to orchestrate something like that for all the constituencies we had. We were able to coast down," Mr. Hermann said.

"We also had the good fortune that a huge number of our early retirement retirees stayed here, so local businesses didn't suffer as much as if all those people suddenly picked up and moved to St. Petersburg. We also worked on economic development opportunities with the communities around us. Not to say that nobody suffered a hardship, but I don't think it was as widespread as it was in some other areas. It just happened that we had a spike in the number of industries in the area (for displaced plant workers)."

At the same time, Westinghouse turned its attention to retrofitting the plant's facilities from weapon-materials production to weapon-materials disposal. Under the terms of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, plutonium must be changed into another form unusable for weapons. SRS established three key disarmament facilities in the 1990s: the K reactor, which became a storage space for weapons-grade materials; and two conversion facilities for mixed-oxide fuel and ceramics production.

"A lot of people say we spent billions of dollars on the K reactor and it only ran once. But because we had upgraded the K reactor to modern standards, we were able to convert fairly inexpensively instead of building a whole new facility," Mr. Hermann said. "It's kind of an odd twist on something where a lot of money was spent and everyone said, `Well, it came for naught.' No, it didn't. It's now a plutonium storage facility because of the upgrades that were made to it (to restart)."

One of the most traumatic aspects of the end of the Cold War for SRS employees was the shift from a military-industrial culture to a corporate one. As a military facility, the staff was used to cloaking every action in secrecy, enforced by layers of security clearances. As SRS moved into a more public domain to meet new DOE safety standards, employees found their actions open to a new level of public scrutiny.

"From the beginning, it was a very insulated workforce, with a lot of blind trust. Suddenly because of world events changing, we were dropped into the middle of a fishbowl," Mr. Hermann said.

Because the new safety standards generated a new level of documentation for oversight boards, critics of the nuclear power industry as a whole had new ammunition with which to press their points. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace spent the 1990s grilling SRS and other nuclear facilities on issues of safety.

Attending to the legacy of the Cold War is a mission Westinghouse officials expect will keep SRS occupied well into the next century, Mr. Hermann said. The plant should continue to shut down older facilities, convert and store nuclear waste as safely as possible, and break down the nation's arsenal for the next 30 to 40 years.

"It'll never be as big a mission as it was in the beginning, but it nonetheless guarantees us a viable mission here," Mr. Hermann said. "And we'll be the only ones in the country doing those things."

Reach Suzanne R. Stone at (803) 279-6895.