U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham doesn't foresee the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, interfering with the Savannah River Site's key role in the national security landscape.
Speaking in Aiken earlier this week, the South Carolina Republican, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was worried about the widespread virus, but not the site's ability to "deliver tritium," a hydrogen isotope used to magnify nuclear weapon power.
The tritium mission at the Savannah River Site falls under the National Nuclear Security Administration umbrella and is overseen by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the site's management and operations team. The NNSA is the U.S. Department of Energy's semiautonomous weapons-and-nonproliferation arm.
Dozens of coronavirus cases have been confirmed across the nation's nuclear weapons complex.
A total 42 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at the Savannah River Site as of June 19. Fourteen of the cases were active as of late last week. The confirmed coronavirus infections, though, represent a fraction of the overall SRS workforce, roughly 10,000 people.
More than 28,900 coronavirus cases had been logged in South Carolina as of Thursday afternoon, a tally that continues to surge higher. More than 300 cases have been traced to Aiken County; 21 local cases – a daily record – were reported Wednesday.
"I'm concerned about COVID-19," Graham said Monday, standing in front of the Lessie B. Price Aiken Senior and Youth Center. "It is still with us."
The Savannah River Site weeks ago shifted to essential mission-critical operations only. That restricted posture greatly reduced the amount of people reporting for work on-site – fewer than 2,500 people – and scaled back the volume of work done there.
National defense ventures, like tritium, were prioritized and continued.
SRS has since begun an incremental return to normal operations. The site-wide pivot back will likely take weeks to complete, and takes into account conditions in surrounding communities, like Aiken, North Augusta and New Ellenton. Approximately one-third of the site workforce lives in nearby Georgia.
"The health and safety of the site workforce is the priority of SRS leadership," officials said in an online update. "We will continue to implement, as appropriate, the enhanced health and safety protocols that have been in place including social distancing, travel restrictions and gathering restrictions, as well as continued increased cleaning and sanitation procedures."