At 310 square miles -- or 198,344 acres -- and 12,000 employees, the Savannah River Site is the largest employer in Aiken County in size and workforce.

The site, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, encompasses parts of Aiken, Barnwell and Allendale counties and borders the Savannah River.

Its mission is to process and store nuclear materials in support of national defense and U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

From its inception in the 1950s, the site produced materials used in nuclear weapons, primarily tritium and plutonium-239. Five reactors were built to produce nuclear materials, and support facilities. From 1953 to 1988, the site produced about 36 metric tons of plutonium.

Irradiated materials were moved from the reactors to one of the two chemical separations plants, where they were refined. The materials were then shipped to other DOE sites for application.

The Atomic Energy Commission reportedly settled on the Savannah River basin after looking at numerous sites around the country, including some western lands that were ruled out because of their lack of large, reliable water supplies.

The site’s overall mission has been modified since the end of the Cold War, now concentrating on the cleanup of legacy materials and wastes left from the Cold War.

Focus is now on the storage of spent nuclear fuel; conversion of weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors; recycling and reloading of tritium from nuclear weapons reservoirs returned from service; processing radioactive waste into stable storage forms; and the cleanup and restoration of the environment at the site.

The site was managed by E.I. DuPont until 1989, when Washington Savannah River Company took over. In 2006, DOE decided to split the WSRC contract into two contracts; the management and operating contract was awarded to Savannah River Nuclear Solutions LLC, and the liquid waste contract to Savannah River Remediation. About 55 percent of the site’s employees are employees of SRNS and its major sub-contractors.

The other major contractors at the site are: Wackenhut Services Inc., which provides security for the site; Shaw AREVA MOX Services; Parsons; and the University of Georgia.

Tritium is one of the ongoing missions at the site. With a half-life of only 12.3 years, tritium must be replenished. SRS is the nation’s only facility for extracting, recycling, purifying and reloading tritium so that nuclear weapons reservoirs can be returned to service.

Another mission at SRS is the disposition of surplus weapons-grade materials consistent with the U.S.-Russian agreement on non-proliferation. DOE has chosen SRS to be the location for the department’s plutonium Pit Disassembly and Conversation operations and Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. These missions will convert surplus weapons-grade plutonium to a form that can be used in commercial power reactors.

Construction on the $4.8 billion MOX facility, which will be operated by Shaw AREVA MOX Services, began in August 2007. PDCF is still in its design phases.

SRS’ F-Canyon and H-Canyon are where nuclear materials historically have been chemically recovered and purified. H-Canyon supports the DOE Enriched Uranium and Plutonium Disposition programs by reducing the quantity of fissile materials in storage throughout the U.S.

Savannah River National Laboratory has become a center of focus as the vision for SRS continues to look forward. The laboratory’s approximately 900-person staff works to develop solutions to the technological challenges facing the Site and the nation in three areas: national and homeland security, energy security and environmental management. The lab in 2004 unveiled two prototype bomb disposal robots that were deployed for military use in Iraq.

Cleanup at the Site is a major ongoing mission. Since 2003, extensive cleanup and closure work has been done at SRS under a concept known as Area Completion, which focuses on cleaning up contamination in the environment by treating the source of contamination to mitigate transport through soil and groundwater and clean up or slow the movement of contamination that is already migrated.

The remediation process is being executed in a way that completes environmental cleanup and facility decommissioning, area by area, until all areas at the Site are completed by 2031.

The site, along with DOE, is also heavily involved with education. DOE and SRS provide a variety of science and literacy outreach programs at the site through funding and coordinating the efforts of several organizations, including the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, Natural Resources Management and Research Institute and SRNS.