The Savannah River Site (SRS) is located in Aiken County, South Carolina approximately 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia. West of SRS across the Savannah River in the State of Georgia is the site of the Vogtle nuclear power plants — two of which are operating and two are under construction. SRS was built in the 1950s by the federal government for nuclear weapons production. SRS is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and is operated for DOE by a management & operations contractor (currently Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC, a partnership of Fluor, Honeywell and a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman). SRS currently stores approximately 45,000 highly-enriched spent nuclear fuel (SNF) assemblies from foreign research reactors in over 2,290 casks. Some of this SNF has been, and will continue to be, dissolved, purified, and down-blended at SRS to low-enriched uranium suitable for conversion to commercial reactor fuel.
SRS also stores defense-related high-level radioactive waste (HLW), mainly in liquid form, from its own operations as well as from defense-related activities conducted elsewhere in the U.S. Originally there were approximately 36 million gallons of HLW stored in 49 underground tanks at SRS. DOE plans to “vitrify” this materials by creating “ceramic logs” that are then placed in canisters for disposal. The vitrification process occurs at the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF) located in the H-Canyon at SRS (see the adjacent photo). DWPF began operating in 1996, and is expected to complete its mission in the early 2020s after generating approximately 4,000 to 5,000 canisters for disposal.
SRS is also considered the “cornerstone” location for storage of excess plutonium produced at numerous DOE facilities across the country (e.g., Rocky Flats and Hanford). There are dozens of tons of excess plutonium currently stored at SRS, and regular additional shipments are occurring. DOE’s Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant received a construction authorization from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in March 2005 and construction activities have been underway since 2007 (see teh adjacent photo). A license application is currently being reviewed by NRC. Once approved, the MOX plant will blend uranrium oxide with surplus weapons-grade plutonium oxide to create fuel assemblies for use in commercial nuclear power plants. Plutonium not deemed suitable for the Mixed Oxide fuel fabrication plant will be dissolved and vitrified using the DWPF in the H-Canyon.
In 1991, local citizens from the Central Savannah River Area of South Carolina and Georgia created Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness (CNTA) to monitor and advocate the activities at SRS and nuclear technologies generally. CNTA (over 400 members strong, including major corporations providing services at SRS) advocates specific new missions that will keep SRS viable well into the 21st century. CNTA Executive Director Dr. Clint Wolfe addressed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future on several occasions in 2010 and 2011 to articulate the general interest of CNTA and its members in allowing the SRS to participate in future SNF storage projects. In February 2012, Dr. Wolfe publicly reiterated CNTA’s interest in consideration of SRS as a site for the long-term storage of SNF noting that SNF is already being stored at SRS. Notwithstanding the interests of CNTA, both Aiken County and the State of South Carolina have participated in the NRC licensing proceeding for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository since February 2010 (and in parallel court proceedings) advocating the continuation of that proceeding specifically because of the SNF stored at SRS (and at several nuclear power plants located in South Carolina). Therefore, it is not clear whether support of the local and state governments in South Carolina is sufficient to permit the use of SRS as a new site for consolidated, long-term storage of SNF, but the possibility currently exists.