SRS Sign

An entrance to the Savannah River Site, which is south of Aiken and near New Ellenton.

The first case of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, has been reported at the Savannah River Site, forcing the U.S. Department of Energy and local contractors to reevaluate ongoing work and the scope of missions there.

Savannah River Site leadership was made aware of the first positive Monday morning. The case was announced publicly late Monday afternoon.

A statement from an Energy Department spokesperson did not include information that would identify the person who tested positive or at what facility he or she works.

Over the next few days, activities at the Savannah River Site will transition to only those "necessary to ensure the safety of the public, our workers, the environment, and critical national security missions," the spokesperson explained.

The curtailing will be specific to each facility, and employees will be updated by their employers, the spokesperson continued.

"The safety and health of the SRS workforce – federal and contractor employees – is the top priority of SRS leadership," the spokesperson said.

The site's infectious disease response team has been activated, according to updates provided last week, and a related infectious disease plan has been implemented. The plan is contingent upon the severity of an outbreak.

The Savannah River Site – about 30 minutes south of Aiken and neighboring New Ellenton and Jackson – employs thousands of people, is a significant economic engine for both South Carolina and Georgia, and provides the nation with key defense resources, such as tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope used in nuclear weapons.

In a March 19 memo to employees, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean described the novel coronavirus pandemic as "unprecedented." More than 33,400 cases of COVID-19 have been reported across the U.S. as of Monday.

Nearly 300 cases have been reported in South Carolina. Many more exist in Georgia.

"Honestly," MacVean said in his memo, "there is really no better word to describe what our country is going through right now."

Both the Energy Department spokesperson and MacVean emphasized a transition to teleworking or working from home. The effort, however, is hobbled by a limited bandwidth that can only "accommodate a small number of employees," according to MacVean's missive.

What's done at the Savannah River Site – complex, hands-on nuclear cleanup as well national security matters, as examples – also poses a challenge to remote work.

"Due to the nature of what we do, we cannot just walk away and turn off the lights," the management and operations president said, adding, "Please remember that many employees cannot just go home."

Inquiries made to the Energy Department were not immediately returned Monday.

Colin Demarest covers the Savannah River Site, the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and government in general. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin