COLUMN: Whither nuclear at SRS?

  • Posted: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 7:33 a.m.
Wolfe
Wolfe

It is great sport to denigrate government programs. It is easy to do, and not many people will argue with you. In contrast, I want to remind you of some very significant accomplishments at the Savannah River Site and encourage you to join me in supporting further SRS involvement in solving many of the nations’ remaining nuclear issues.

SRS has the physical and human assets to deal with a wide range of issues of national priority that could keep more than 10,000 people working there for a long time. Issues such as closing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, demonstrating clean energy concepts, completing the environmental cleanup, eliminating weapons grade plutonium as designated in our agreements with the Russian Federation, closing nuclear high level liquid waste tanks and continuing the impressive progress toward reducing the Cold War footprint at the site. Last year SRS closed high level waste tanks No. 18 and No. 19 (the first ones at SRS in 15 years) and are on track to close two more in 2013. They also are about to pour their 3,600th canister of vitrified high level waste. More than 48 million curies of nuclear material have been secured in borosilicate glass, and the siltstone disposal facility, designed to take lower curie content material, also had a record year in 2012.

Without fanfare, the site essentially completed shipment of transuranic wastes to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, more than 20 years ahead of schedule. By the end of 2013, SRS plans to have shipped all transuranic wastes to WIPP. These transuranic wastes included material generated at SRS and shipped here from Rocky Flats and Mound Laboratories as those sites were de-inventoried and closed. This astonishing accomplishment contradicts the often heard complaint that nuclear waste stays wherever it is.

The risk reduction corresponding to these accomplishments is enormous.

SRS has assets to deal with other high-priority national issues. President Obama has cited the need for continuing the cleanup of the cold war legacy, proceeding with nonproliferation programs, energy independence, clean energy production, development of biofuels, interim storage of used nuclear fuel and leadership in nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technology. Despite SRS’s attributes, the role that it will play in resolving the nation’s energy issues is uncertain due to a number of factors.

First, DOE’s visionary road map adopted for the future of SRS presents a scope challenge for the current landlord at the site. The landlord is DOE’s Environmental Management organization whose charter centers on cleanup of Cold War legacy materials. Environmental Management’s priorities do not include many of the national priorities mentioned above. Although many good people in Environmental Management see no conflict in its mission and using the assets at the SRS to tackle the nation’s nuclear issues, all of which include waste and environmental management (which are precisely Environmental Management’s scope), apparently they have been told to use those assets on legacy cleanup – period.

So we have a situation where bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., stymied an initiative by the local DOE-SR and its contractor to enter into agreements with potential suppliers of small modular reactors to demonstrate these new reactors at SRS, apparently because this activity was not dictated by the right bureaucrat. This decision strikes a chilling blow to the SRS, its national laboratory (namely, the Savannah River National Laboratory – SRNL) and its visionary leadership. It is incomprehensible that some in Washington, D.C., place themselves in the position of defining (indeed, prescribing) legitimate activities for a national laboratory at such a micro-level. SRNL was in the process of responding to a DOE Federal Opportunity Announcement in conjunction with industry partners to site one or more SMRs at SRS when they were told to “cease and desist.” Some of the qualities of these reactors, depending upon the particular design, are that they require less space, produce less waste, consume used nuclear fuel (high level waste), require less security and don’t require refueling. They are ideal for supplying power to military installations and remote locations, powering desalinization plants or as replacements for coal-fired power plants rated at less than 300 megawatts.

SRS is the perfect location to demonstrate these concepts which fit very well with the assets and skill sets at SRS and SRNL. In addition, SRS has well characterized sites from previous initiatives that would shorten the time frame and lower the cost of demonstrating such reactors. Appropriate security is already in place at SRS with an excellent track record. The National Defense Authorization Act directs the National Nuclear Security Administration to consider the use of such reactors to provide the nation’s tritium supply and to site the production mission at SRS. So don’t assume there are no SMRs in the future of SRS. If there has been inappropriate scope creep, I would submit that it occurred within the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., and not at SRS.

Clint Wolfe is the executive director for the Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness.

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